Summary of Findings
Voters overwhelmingly believe that the media wants Barack Obama to win the presidential election. By a margin of 70%-9%, Americans say most journalists want to see Obama, not John McCain, win on Nov. 4. Another 8% say journalists don’t favor either candidate, and 13% say they don’t know which candidate most reporters support.
A separate study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism looks at the media’s recent campaign coverage and finds that McCain received significantly more negative than positive coverage between the GOP convention and the final debate. The study says that press treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative, but not markedly so. [See “Winning the Media Campaign” released October 22, 2008.]
In recent presidential campaigns, voters repeatedly have said they thought journalists favored the Democratic candidate over the Republican. But this year’s margin is particularly wide. At this stage of the 2004 campaign, 50% of voters said most journalists wanted to see John Kerry win the election, while 22% said most journalists favored George Bush. In October 2000, 47% of voters said journalists wanted to see Al Gore win and 23% said most journalists wanted Bush to win. In 1996, 59% said journalists were pulling for Bill Clinton.
In the current campaign, Republicans, Democrats and independents all feel that the media wants to see Obama win the election. Republicans are almost unanimous in their opinion: 90% of GOP voters say most journalists are pulling for Obama. More than six-in-ten Democratic and independent voters (62% each) say the same.
Obama’s Image Continues to Improve
The latest Pew weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted October 17-20, shows that changing opinions of Obama have been more favorable than unfavorable in these waning days of the campaign, while just the opposite is true for changing views of McCain. A third of the public (33%) says their opinion of Obama has become more favorable in recent days, while 23% say their opinion of the Democratic nominee has become less favorable. By contrast, 34% say their opinion of McCain has become less favorable in recent days and 24% say their opinion of the GOP nominee has become more favorable.
Changing views of McCain’s running mate are also more negative than positive: 35% say their opinion of Sarah Palin has become less favorable in recent days, while only 21% say their view of Palin has become more favorable. Views of Joe Biden have remained relatively stable. Most Americans (57%) say their opinion of Biden hasn’t changed recently.
Increased Public Awareness of Candidates’ Policy Positions
Over the past two months, the public has become much more familiar with the presidential candidates and their issue positions. Solid majorities now say they know at least a fair amount about John McCain’s positions on foreign policy and the economy. Similarly, a large majority say they know about Obama’s positions on the economy and most say they know about his foreign policy views.
With so much attention on the international financial crisis in recent weeks, awareness of the candidates’ economic positions has increased most dramatically. In August, 56% said they knew a lot or a fair amount about Obama’s positions on the economy; today 73% say they know as much about where the Democratic nominee stands on the economy. Nearly as many (69%) now say they know a lot or a great deal about McCain’s economic positions, up from 54% in August.
On foreign policy, a solid majority (64%) now says they know at least a fair amount about McCain’s positions, up from 54% in August. While awareness of Obama’s foreign policy positions also has increased, the Democrat still lags behind McCain on this measure. Today 58% say they know a lot or a great deal about Obama’s views on foreign policy (up from 48% in August).
Republicans are more aware than Democrats of McCain’s policy positions, while Democrats know more than Republicans about where Obama stands on the issues. Independents say they know the two candidates’ economic policies equally well. Seven-in-ten say they know at least a fair amount about Obama’s economic policies, while 68% say the same of McCain’s. However, while 62% of independents know at least a far amount about McCain’s foreign policy positions, only 52% say they know as much about where Obama stands on foreign policy.
The public also knows a good deal about the personal history of the candidates. More than three-quarters (78%) say they know a lot or a fair amount about McCain’s background and qualifications, and nearly as many (73%) say they know at least a fair amount about Obama’s background.
Campaign Interest Continues to Grow
The public’s appetite for presidential campaign news reached an all time high last week as Obama and McCain faced off in their third and final debate. Fully, 61% of Americans reported following news about the campaign very closely and another three-in-ten (28%) were following the race fairly closely. The campaign attracted significantly more attention than the previous week, when roughly half (52%) followed election news very closely.
For its part, the national media devoted more newshole the campaign (51% of all coverage) than to any other story, including the nation’s financial crisis, according to the News Coverage Index conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).
The level of public interest in the campaign for mid-October is significantly higher than at the same point in 2004 (56% now vs. 46% then). An analysis comparing the last two News Interest Index surveys (conducted Oct. 10-13 and Oct. 17-20) with results from mid-October 2004 finds that interest in the campaign is up among many subgroups. There is much higher interest this year among African Americans (up 24 points), those with a high school degree or less education (up 18 points), Democrats (up 17 points) and those 65 years and older (up 16 points). Meanwhile, the percent of Republicans following campaign news very closely is the same (57%) as it was at this point in 2004.
Not Your Average Joe
John McCain introduced a new character into the campaign dialogue last week, when during the presidential debate he repeatedly cited “Joe the plumber,” an Ohio man who had confronted Obama on the trail about his tax proposals. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the public heard a lot about “Joe the plumber” and another one-in-four heard a little about him.
Discussions tied to “Joe” made for one of the most widely heard about events of the campaign, comparable to the percentage who heard a lot about McCain’s decision to temporarily suspend his campaign last month (65%) and Obama’s visit to the Middle East and Europe in late July (62%). According to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index, “Joe the plumber” was the third biggest campaign storyline last week, accounting for 8% of all campaign related news.
Fewer Americans have heard a lot about Obama’s ties to ACORN, the community organizing group that has been accused of voter registration fraud. Still, roughly half (48%) have heard a lot about ACORN and ties to Obama and a third (34%) have heard a little about this story.
A solid majority of Republicans (60%) have heard a lot about ACORN, compared with fewer than half of Democrats (46%) and independents (43%).
Just under one-in-four (23%) heard a lot about McCain’s appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and another 41% heard a little about this. More Democrats (30%) than Republicans (19%) reported hearing a lot about McCain on the Letterman show.
Assessing the Presidential Debates
A substantial majority of Americans (80%) tuned in to at least some portion of the presidential debate coverage. Only 20% say they didn’t watch any coverage of the three televised debates. By a more than three-to-one margin (66%-21%), those who watched the debates say Obama did a better job than McCain.
Democrats overwhelmingly believe their nominee prevailed in the debates. About nine-in-ten (92%) of Democrats who watched the debates say Obama did the better job, while only 4% say McCain gave a stronger performance. While a plurality of Republicans (47%) say McCain won the debates, nearly a third (31%) say Obama did a better job. Among independents, 71% say Obama gave the better debate performance; only 18% choose McCain.
The public has a positive impression of the presidential debates overall. Fully 77% of those who watched at least a little of the debate coverage say the debates were interesting. Nearly as many (70%) say they were informative. Views are more mixed with regard to how entertaining the debates were – 49% say they were entertaining, 50% say they were not.
While Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to have watched the debates, Democrats reacted more positively to them. Fully 81% of Democrats say the debates were informative, but only 59% of Republicans agree. Similarly, 86% of Democrats found the debates to be interesting, compared with 71% of Republicans. A majority of Democrats (55%) found the debates entertaining; 48% of Republicans did as well.
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 collecte
d from October 13-19 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 17-20 from a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults.
Public Still Tracking Economic News
In addition to following campaign news last week, the public continued to closely track news about the economy. Fully 62% followed reports about the U.S. economy very closely and 54% paid very close attention to recent major ups and downs in the U.S. stock market.
When asked to name the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week, 42% of the public listed either reports about the economy (24%) or changes in the stock market (18%). In addition, many Americans were following news about the falling price of gas and oil – 53% followed this story very closely and 11% listed this as their most closely followed news story of the week.
With 38% of the public saying the presidential campaign was their most closely followed story last week, interest in economic news just edged out interest in the election. At the same time, the media clearly shifted its focus away from the economic crisis and back to the campaign. According to the Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 51% of the national newshole last week was devoted to the presidential campaign, while 23% of the newshole focused on the economy. Cable television news focused heavily on the campaign, with 80% of its coverage going to election news and only 12% to economic news.
Relatively few Americans paid close attention to news about the California wildfires last week: 15% followed this story very closely and 2% listed this as their most closely followed story. News that Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie are divorcing attracted very little public attention. Only 3% of the public followed this story very closely, while 70% said they weren’t following it all.
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.