Summary of Findings

The 2008 presidential campaign was once again a big story last week with most news coverage devoted to the Republican presidential candidates. While media coverage focused primarily on Republicans, the public directed most of its attention to the Democratic contenders.

When asked which candidate they have heard the most about in the news recently, 63% of Americans named a Democrat while just 16% named a GOP candidate. This pattern of greater visibility for the Democrats extends back to March when nearly the same proportions as today named Democrats (62%) in greater number than Republicans (7%). Even among Republicans themselves the pattern stands. Last week, 51% of Republicans named a Democrat as the most heard-about candidate in the presidential race, compared with 36% who named a GOP candidate.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most visible candidate in the public eye, a position she has held for several months. Roughly four-in-ten Americans (41%) said she was the candidate they had heard the most about in the news lately, while 20% named Barack Obama, the next most visible presidential hopeful. Only 2% named John Edwards.

Sen. Clinton’s dominance is evident even among Republicans, 29% of whom said she was the candidate they’d been hearing about the most. Clinton also leads in terms of visibility across many demographic groups. For men and women, whites and blacks, and individuals from high-income and low-income households, Clinton is the candidate they’ve heard most about in the news. Only among young people is another candidate as visible: Three-in-ten Americans (29%) under the age of 30 named Barack Obama as the candidate they’ve heard the most about lately, compared with 31% who named Clinton as the most prominent candidate.

While the Democrats continued to dominate the public’s attention, the same was not true of last week’s media coverage of the campaign. From Sept. 2-7, news reports about Republican candidates outnumbered those about Democrats by a two-to-one margin (50% for Republicans, 25% for Democrats). The announcement by former U.S. senator and Hollywood actor Fred Thompson that he will enter the presidential race and a GOP debate in New Hampshire were prominent campaign stories last week. Fred Thompson’s announcement attracted considerable media attention; however, fewer than one-in-ten Americans (8%) named him as the candidate they’ve been hearing most about lately. His announcement captured the attention of 17% of Republicans, but very few Democrats (5%) or independents (6%). Others in the Republican presidential field received far fewer mentions last week: 4% named Rudy Guiliani, while both Mitt Romney and John McCain were named by 2% of the public.

Public Remains Focused on Iraq News

Events in Iraq were by far the most closely followed news story of the week. One-in-four Americans (24%) said this was the story they followed more closely than any other, greater than twice the number citing any other story listed.

The Iraq policy debate in Washington also captured substantial public attention while finishing first (17%) in terms of news coverage. For 9% of Americans, this was the story they followed most closely. The significant amount of coverage devoted to the president’s unannounced visit to Iraq and discussions leading up to the Iraq progress report from Gen. David Petraeus contributed to the story’s prominence in the news.

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 was collected from September 2-7 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected September 7-10 from a nationally representative sample of 1,043 adults.

Storms, Terrorist Plots and Other News

Hurricanes Felix and Henriette, that simultaneously struck Central America from the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, captured less attention than other storms of the recent past. About one-in-seven (14%) followed the storms very closely last week, compared with far greater numbers who followed Hurricane Wilma in November 2005 (34%, very closely) or Hurricane Katrina (70%) in September 2005, both of which impacted Americans more directly.

Questions about the political future of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig following his arrest for disorderly conduct in an airport restroom made him a prominent figure in the news for a second straight week. News about Sen. Craig was followed very closely by 16% of the public, down only slightly from two-in-ten (19%) closely following news about his arrest the week before. A congressional sex scandal in October 2006 involving then-U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) who sent inappropriate messages to young people, attracted greater interest: At that time, 26% said they were following news about Foley’s actions and his subsequent resignation very closely.

German officials last week stopped a terrorist plot by a group of Islamic militants to bomb several locations including Ramstein U.S. military base. One-in-five followed this story very closely and just 6% said it was the story they followed most closely. News about this foiled plot received roughly the same level of public interest as a similar new story in May, when six men were charged with plotting an attack on Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey (19% followed that news very closely).

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