Summary of Findings
The 2008 presidential campaign began much earlier than usual, but public interest in the campaign is at most only modestly higher than in previous campaigns. While Democrats are following the campaign more closely than at the same stage in previous primary contests, Republicans are no more engaged than in the past, resulting in a sizable partisan gap in campaign interest.
The Republicans’ disengagement, if not disillusionment, with the campaign is borne out by the fact that many more Republicans are able to recall unprompted the names of Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than can name Rudy Giuliani and other leading GOP candidates.
Public familiarity with the leading Democratic candidates is extraordinarily high compared with candidates in past campaigns. Clinton and Obama have become household names to substantial majorities of Americans. By contrast, the Republican candidates as a group are about as well known as previous GOP candidates, while Giuliani is less well known than past Republican frontrunners.
Overall, 81% can name a Democratic candidate unprompted, with 78% volunteering Clinton’s name and 62% Obama’s. By contrast, 59% could name any Republican candidate. Giuliani is the best known Republican candidate, with 45% of the public naming him.
Even among Republicans, Clinton and Obama are much more visible than Giuliani or any other GOP presidential candidate. When asked to name any Democratic presidential candidate, 79% of Republicans named Clinton and 60% mentioned Obama. Asked for the name of a GOP candidate, 57% of Republicans named Giuliani. No other Republican candidate was mentioned by even half of Republicans.
Notably, the current GOP candidates as a group are about as well known as past Republican candidates, among Republicans and the public generally. At a comparable point in the 2000 campaign, the last time there was a contest for the GOP nomination, 63% could name a Republican candidate, which is on par with the current measure (59%).
But the leading Democrats are far better known than their predecessors. At this point in the 2004 election cycle, just 41% of the public could name a Democratic candidate, compared with 81% currently. John Kerry and Howard Dean received the most mentions in the fall of 2003 (19% each); that compares with 78% for Clinton and 60% for Obama.
Pew’s weekly News Interest Index finds that since the beginning of September, 20% of the public, on average, has followed campaign news very closely, while 52% have followed it very or fairly closely. Interest was nearly as great at this point in the 2000 campaign, the last time that both parties had competitive contests for presidential nominations (52% now vs. 49% then).
While campaign interest has fluctuated from week to week, overall interest in the fall (September to mid-October) is no higher than it was during the first three months of this year (52% very/fairly closely from January-March).
As was the case earlier this year, fewer Republicans than Democrats say they are following news about the campaign. Since the beginning of September, 62% of Democrats, on average, have followed campaign news very or fairly closely; that compares with 52% of Republicans and 47% of independents.
At this stage in the 2000 campaign, Republicans were somewhat more likely than Democrats to say they were following campaign news. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (57%) and 51% of Democrats said they followed news about the candidates very or fairly closely. At that time, independents lagged well behind members of both parties in campaign news interest (42% very/fairly closely). Independents are more interested in the current campaign, and now are nearly as attentive as Republicans to news about the candidates (47% vs. 52%).
The news interest survey also finds that, with the first primary elections still at least a month away, the public continues to express campaign fatigue. Two-thirds (66%) describe the campaign as “too long,” up from 59% in April. A substantial though smaller majority (55%) describes the campaign as “dull” rather than interesting. The public’s overall evaluations of press coverage of the campaign are largely negative: 53% say the coverage has been only fair or poor while 41% rate the coverage as good or excellent.
The Republican candidates as a group are about as visible as GOP candidates at comparable points during the 2000 and 1996 election cycles. Currently, 59% can name any Republican candidate. In September 1999, 63% of Americans could name a Republican candidate and four years earlier, 56% were able to do so. However, Giuliani is not as well known as George Bush was at this stage in 2000 and Bob Dole was in 1996; 45% currently are able to name Giuliani, compared with 54% who named Bush in September 1999, and 51% who named Dole in August 1995.
Notably, substantially more Republicans named Clinton as a Democratic candidate than named Giuliani, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, as a Republican candidate. Fully 79% of Republicans mentioned Clinton when asked to name a Democratic candidate, while only 57% named Giuliani when asked for a Republican. Obama matched Giuliani in familiarity among Republicans (60%).
Other Republican candidates are far less familiar to Republicans than Giuliani. Fred Thompson was named as a candidate by 40% of Republicans, while Mitt Romney was named by 37%. Roughly a quarter of Republicans (27%) could not name a single GOP candidate.
Among Democrats, Clinton is almost universally recognized; 86% of Democrats named Clinton as a Democratic candidate. About two-thirds (68%) named Obama, while 31% named Edwards. Just 10% of Democrats could not name any Democratic presidential candidate.
Independents are much more familiar with the Democratic field than with the Republican candidates. Fully 73% of independents named Clinton and 60% named Obama. While 45% of independents named Giuliani, the other leading GOP candidates were known by a third or less of this group. About four-in-ten independents (39%) could not name a GOP candidate. By contrast, 24% could not name a Democratic candidate.
Campaign Interest Flat
If anything, public interest in news about the presidential campaign has been a bit lower in the past few weeks than it was earlier this year.
In Pew’s most recent weekly News Interest Index, conducted Oct. 12-15, just 13% said they were following the campaign very closely, while 31% said they were following it fairly closely. The combined very/fairly measure, at 43%, was among the lowest interest levels of the year. Notably, the campaign received more press coverage than any other story of the week, according to The Project for Excellence in Journalism‘s News Coverage Index.
If previous patterns of campaign interest hold, public attentiveness is likely to increase once primaries are conducted. In 2004, for example, the proportion following the election very or fairly closely rose from 42% in December 2003 to 69% by March 2004. In other recent elections, there also has been a sharp rise in public interest during the primary season.
Democrats have consistently expressed more interest in news about the campaign than have either Republicans or independents. In October weekly news interest surveys, 59% of Democrats said they were following the campaign, compared with 49% of Republicans and 48% of independents.
In addition, Democratic interest in the campaign currently is significantly higher than in past campaigns. In surveys from September-December 2003, about half of Democrats (51%) on average paid very or fairly close attention to the campaign, and the same number of Democrats followed campaign news very or fairly closely during the fall of 1999 (51%, on average, from September to December). In the current campaign, 62% of Democrats said they tracked news about the campaign at least fairly closely in September and October.
Other measures of political engagement have shown a similar pattern. Overall, the percentage of Americans who say they have given “a lot” of thought to the candidates has remained fairly stable since the beginning of the year. In September, 27% said they were giving a lot of thought to the candidates, which was nearly identical to the level in April (26%). In September, somewhat more Democrats (35%) than Republicans (30%) or independents (20%) said they were giving a lot of thought to the candidates.
A Long, Dull Campaign
The public’s overall impression of the presidential campaign is that it is too long and not very interesting. Overall, 66% say the campaign is too long, while 55% describe it as dull. Just 37% say they think the campaign is interesting.
As the campaign has progressed through the summer and into the fall, it has not become more interesting to the public. In April, 34% said the campaign was interesting, nearly identical to the proportion who say that six months later. The percentage saying the campaign is too long has increased somewhat since April (from 59% in April to 66% now).
Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents say this campaign is too long. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to find the campaign interesting (49% vs. 36%), though even among Democrats, nearly half (48%) say the campaign has been dull so far. Independents have the most negative views of the campaign in this regard — 63% describe it as dull.
Public evaluations of the amount of campaign information available are more positive. Half say they like having a lot of information about the campaign, while 41% say they feel “overloaded” by the amount of campaign information. Republicans and independents are far more likely than Democrats to say they feel overloaded (47% of Republicans, 44% of independents vs. 34% of Democrats).
These findings are consistent with a July News Interest survey in which a plurality (43%) said that the press devotes the right amount of coverage to news about the presidential candidates; about a third (32%) said there is too much coverage devoted to campaign news; just 18% said there is too little coverage of the campaign. In the July survey, twice as many Republicans as Democrats said that the press devotes too much coverage to news about the campaign (40% vs. 19%).
Beyond partisanship, age has an impact on views of the campaign. Older Americans overwhelmingly feel the current campaign is too long — 75% of those over age 50 share this view. Among those under age 30, only 49% say the campaign is too long. Older voters are also much more likely to feel overloaded by campaign news. Nearly half of those over age 50 (49%) feel overloaded, compared with only a quarter of those under age 30. Fully two-thirds of young people (65%) say they like having so much campaign information.
Rating Coverage of the Campaign
In rating the job the press has done in covering the 2008 presidential campaign, the balance of opinion is largely negative at this point in the race. More than half of Americans (53%) rate the coverage as only fair or poor, while 41% say the coverage is excellent or good. Democrats are decidedly more positive in their assessments than either Republicans or Independents. About six-in-ten Democrats (57%) say that the coverage is excellent or good compared with just 40% of Republicans and less than a third of independents (32%). Independents are the most critical of campaign coverage; fully 61% of this group gives the press only a fair or poor rating.
Those who are closely following the presidential campaign are evenly divided over whether the press is doing an excellent or good job (48%) or only a fair or poor job (50%) of reporting on the campaign. Those who were following this story very or fairly closely back in February were somewhat more positive in their assessments of campaign coverage (56% excellent or good vs. 43% fair or poor).
Public Wants More Issues Coverage
A substantial number of Americans (77%) continue to say that they would like to see more coverage of the candidates’ positions on issues. That opinion is virtually unchanged since May (76%).
There is less agreement in public views about other aspects of campaign coverage. Majorities say they want more coverage of the candidates’ debates (57%), their sources of campaign money (55%), their personal backgrounds (55%), and the candidates who are not frontrunners (55%). However, a third or more says that they would like to see less coverage of each of these aspects of the presidential campaign.
The public is decidedly unenthusiastic about one area of campaign coverage: just 42% say they would like to see more coverage of which candidate is leading in the polls, while 45% wants to see less coverage. That result, like others relating to campaign coverage, has changed very little since May.
Eight-in-ten Democrats (82%) and Republicans (79%) and three-quarters of independents (74%) say that they would like more news coverage of the candidates’ positions on the issues. Half or more of each group also wants more coverage devoted to the debates, the sources of campaign fundraising, and the candidates’ backgrounds. Independents (60%) are somewhat more likely than Republicans (52%) or Democrats (49%) to want more coverage of the candidates who are not the frontrunners.
The only area where there is a clear partisan difference is on coverage of who is leading in the polls. Democrats (56%) are much more likely than Republicans (40%) or independents (35%) to say they would like to see more coverage of which candidate is ahead in the polls.
About the News Interest Index
The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.
This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ will compile this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey will collect data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.
Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.
For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to www.journalism.org.