In a campaign season profoundly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, about half of U.S. adults say they are fairly closely or very closely following news about the candidates for the 2020 presidential election. That is somewhat smaller than the share who were following news about the presidential candidates a few months ago, and substantially smaller than the share now following news about the COVID-19 outbreak.
With Election Day six months away, 52% of Americans are paying fairly close or very close attention to news about the presidential candidates, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted April 20-26 as part of the American News Pathways project. Back in a Feb. 18-March 2 survey, a modestly larger share (59%) said they were following news about the candidates fairly closely or very closely. That period included the South Carolina Democratic primary, which appears to have been a turning point for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Both measures are somewhat lower than a similar measure asked on the phone in April 2016, when 69% of Americans reported that they were following candidate news at least fairly closely. But all these figures are far smaller than the overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) who say they are following news about the coronavirus outbreak fairly closely or very closely, according to the April survey. The findings underscore the extent to which the pandemic has come to dominate media coverage and public attention.
How we did this
This analysis of how closely Americans are following news about the presidential candidates is based on a survey of 10,139 U.S. adults conducted April 20 to 26, 2020. Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses.
Recruiting our panelists by phone or mail ensures that nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. This gives us confidence that any sample can represent the whole population (see our Methods 101 explainer on random sampling). To further ensure that each survey reflects a balanced cross section of the nation, the data is weighted to match the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories.
There is little or no difference in the level of interest in COVID-19 news by gender or race and ethnicity (though older adults are more likely to follow COVID-19 news than younger adults). But when it comes to following news about the 2020 candidates, some demographic differences are considerably more pronounced.
A higher percentage of men (58%) than women (45%) are following candidate news very or fairly closely. Women are nearly twice as likely as men (20% vs. 12%) to say they are following candidate news not at all closely.
White adults are somewhat more likely to be following candidate news fairly or very closely (56%) than black adults (47%) and considerably more likely to be doing so than Hispanic adults (38%). Hispanic adults are nearly twice as likely to say they are following candidate news not at all closely as very closely (24% vs. 13%).
The level of engagement with candidate news increases steadily with age, a pattern seen in previous research about news more generally. Among those ages 18 to 29, 39% are following news about the candidates very or fairly closely. The percentage rises to 46% among those ages 30 to 49, 57% among those ages 50 to 64 and around two-thirds (66%) of those 65 and older. Americans 65 and older are more than twice as likely as those 18 to 29 to say they are following candidate news very closely (30% vs. 12%).
In the new survey, differences by gender, race, ethnicity and age are similar to those in the Feb. 18-March 2 survey. But in nearly all these demographic groups, the share of people who are fairly or very closely following candidate news has declined since February. One exception is among the youngest adults: In both surveys, 39% of those ages 18 to 29 said they are paying fairly or very close attention to news about the candidates.
Americans not so interested in hearing from presidential campaigns themselves, many unsure whether primaries are over
The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected how the candidates conduct the 2020 presidential campaign. While President Donald Trump has the bully pulpit of the White House at his disposal, the outbreak has largely confined him to that building. And while Biden has tried different forms of outreach to voters, he has been effectively sequestered in his Delaware home.
When asked if it is personally important to receive messages and statements relating to the election and other important issues from the Trump and Biden campaigns themselves, fewer than half (44%) of Americans say it is very important or somewhat important. A slight majority (55%) say it is not too important or not at all important. In fact, more Americans say it is not at all important (24%) than say it is very important (18%) to hear messages from the campaigns.
Responses to this question again diverge by age. While 37% of those ages 18 to 29 and 38% of those ages 30 to 49 say it is it is very or somewhat important to get information from the campaigns, the share jumps to 58% among those 65 and older.
Meanwhile, the U.S. public does not appear to be keeping close tabs on the Democratic primary calendar, which has shifted considerably in response to concerns about COVID-19. A number of contests were rescheduled, and in some cases, states eliminated in-person voting in favor of mail-in ballots only.
The April 20-26 survey asked Americans whether states are still holding Democratic Party primaries. The response was a virtual tie between the 43% who answered correctly that primaries are still being held and the 41% who say they are not sure of the answer. A small minority of respondents (14%) answered that the states had ended the primary season.