Summary of Findings
Interest in the presidential election surged last week, with the public following campaign news more closely than at any point since the Super Tuesday primaries in February. As attention to the campaign has increased, the images of both Barack Obama and John McCain have improved in recent days.
In a survey conducted Aug. 29-31, 29% say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable in recent days, while 19% say their opinion of the Illinois senator has become less favorable; 50% say their opinion of Obama has not changed. This marks the first time since the question was first asked in March that significantly more people said their opinion of Obama had become more favorable, rather than less favorable, in the days before the survey.
The public also reacted favorably to John McCain this past week. As with Obama, significantly more people say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable, rather than less favorable, in recent days (28% vs. 22%); 47% say their opinion of the Arizona senator has not changed.
The survey, conducted just after the Democratic convention concluded and McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, finds that interest in the campaign far surpassed interest in news about Hurricane Gustav as it approached the Gulf Coast. More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) cited news about the presidential election as the story they followed most closely last week. By comparison, just 18% cited reports about the hurricane as their top story of the week.
The survey found that Palin’s selection registered strongly with the public: 56% said they heard a lot about “McCain’s choice of a vice presidential running mate.” However, about as many people (58%) said they heard a lot about Obama’s choice of a running mate – Delaware Sen. Joe Biden – a week earlier.
Impressing the Base
Both Obama and McCain are now viewed much more favorably among members of their own parties than they were just a week ago. More than half of Democrats (54%) say they have come to have a more favorable opinion of Obama in recent days, up from 39% in the week prior to the convention. The opinions of Republicans and independents toward Obama have shifted only marginally over the past two weeks.
Notably, people who say they watched all or most of the Democratic convention – 22% of the public – are much more likely than others to say their impression of Obama has improved. Fully 61% of those who watched all or most of the convention – a group comprised mostly of Democrats – say their view of Obama has become more favorable recently. Far fewer of those who watched some of the convention – or little or none of it – say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable.
Similarly, 53% of Republicans say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days – up from 32% the previous week. There are more modest increases in the proportions of Democrats and independents who say their view of McCain has become more favorable. Among those who heard a lot about McCain’s vice presidential selection, 36% say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable while 24% say it has become less favorable.
Watching the Convention
Nearly half of Americans (46%) say they watched all or most of the Democratic convention (22%) or some of it (24%). Somewhat more (54%) say they watched either just a little of the television coverage of the convention (25%) or none of it (29%).
For a plurality of those who watched at least a little (38%), Barack Obama’s speech was the highlight of the Democratic convention; 16% volunteered Hillary Clinton’s speech as the convention highlight, while 7% cited Bill Clinton’s address.
A majority of Democrats (52%) – including 59% who favored Obama for their party’s nomination – cited Obama’s speech as the highlight of the convention. Even among those who favored Hillary Clinton for the nomination, slightly more viewed Obama’s speech as the convention highlight than Clinton’s speech (36% vs. 29%).
As might be expected, many Republicans (28%) said there was no highlight in the opposing party’s convention; another 16% declined to answer, while 8% said the fact the convention was over was its highlight. One-in-five Republicans cited Obama’s speech as the convention highlight, while 12% mentioned Hillary Clinton’s speech.
Among those able to rate Obama’s speech, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.1 Nearly half (48%) rated the speech excellent and another 35% rated it good. Just 17% said the speech was either only fair (13%) or poor (4%). Nearly all Democrats who rated Obama’s speech said it was either excellent (66%) or good (30%). Even among Republicans who rated the speech, the balance of opinion was decidedly positive (70% excellent/good vs. 30% fair/poor).
These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s agenda. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage were collected from August 25-31 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected August 29-31 from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults.
Increasing Campaign Interest
With the Democratic convention and McCain’s surprising choice for a vice presidential running mate, public interest in the campaign increased dramatically. Following the convention, fully 45% were paying very close attention to news about the campaign. This is up from just 31% who said they were tracking news about the candidates very closely a week before the convention. Some 44% named the campaign as their most closely followed story of the week – making it by far the public’s top news interest.
News about Hurricane Gustav was the top story of 18% of the public last week and 33% followed storm news very closely. Coverage of the hurricane, as it approached the Gulf Coast, accounted for 7% of the overall newshole for the week. By comparison 69% of the newshole focused on the campaign.
Economic news continued to register with the public last week, despite the attention and coverage given to Gustav and the campaign. Fully 41% said they followed news about the economy very closely and 13% named it their top story. Public attentiveness to economic news has been consistently high since the start of year, with close interest rarely dipping below 40%.
By contrast, public interest in the current situation and events in Iraq has waned to its lowest level since Pew began tracking the story in September of 2002; about one-in-five (22%) followed news about Iraq very closely last week and only 5% named it their top story. Coverage of Iraq news was comparably modest filling just 2% of the newshole.
Public interest in the ongoing conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia fell for the second straight week: 22% followed the story very closely and 5% listed it as the single news story they followed more closely than any other.
In other international news, relatively few paid close attention to the military effort in Afghanistan: 18% followed reports on Afghanistan and the Taliban very closely while just 2% named it their top story.
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.pewresearch.org/journalism.