Summary of Findings

In the wake of his victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama for the first time supplanted Hillary Clinton as the most visible presidential candidate. Overall, 38% of Americans say they heard the most about Obama in the days immediately after the caucuses (Jan. 4-7), while 28% named Clinton as the most visible candidate. In measures throughout 2007, Hillary Clinton consistently dominated the list of who Americans had been hearing about in the news.

Despite his victory in Iowa’s Republican caucus, Mike Huckabee did not receive the same public attention as did Obama. Just 13% of Americans name Huckabee as the candidate they were hearing the most about in the week after the caucuses, compared with 38% for Obama. This is true even among Republicans. About three-in-ten Republicans (31%) name Obama as the presidential candidate they heard the most about compared with 24% who name Huckabee.

As a group, the Democratic candidates, led by Obama and Clinton, far surpass the GOP candidates in public visibility. Two-thirds of the public (67%) name a Democrat as the candidate they have heard the most about, with Obama and Clinton receiving the lion’s share of mentions. By contrast, just 19% name a Republican, with most (13%) mentioning Huckabee.

Coverage Spikes, Some Public Backlash

The presidential campaign dominated news coverage last week, with roughly half of the newshole (49%) devoted to the tight nomination contests in both political parties, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s tracking of news content. Public interest in the campaign has increased but campaign news has not necessarily dominated the public’s focus to the same extent. Just over a third (34%) say the campaign is the story they followed most closely last week, up 12 points from early December (Dec. 2-7). But many also say the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (21%), the tiger attack at the San Francisco zoo (10%), and news from Iraq (10%) were the stories they followed most closely.

There are signs that some Americans are growing weary of the coverage. For the first time since the campaign began, about as many say the press has devoted too much coverage to the campaign as say the amount of coverage has been appropriate (40% vs. 43%). In previous surveys, sizable pluralities said news organizations were devoting the right amount of coverage to the campaign. More Republicans (45%) than Democrats (32%) say that the press is devoting too much attention to the campaign; a finding that has been consistent throughout much of the campaign.

The dramatic increase in campaign coverage over the past several months may help to explain where signs of campaign fatigue are coming from. For the weeks that correspond with polling data on this subject, coverage grew from 9% of total news (May 27-June 1) up to 21% (Nov. 11-16) and to 49% last week (Dec 30-Jan 4).

Half Able to Name Both Iowa Victors

As testament to the public’s modest attention, only about half of Americans (51%) could name Mike Huckabee as the winner in Iowa on the weekend following the caucuses. Many more people (71%) could name Obama as the Democratic victor in Iowa. Overall, only 49% of Americans could correctly identify who won both Iowa caucuses.

Republican voters were far more able to name Huckabee (61%) than were Democrats (45%) or independents (51%). Yet, reflecting Obama’s greater visibility, even among Republicans more could name Obama as the Democratic victor than Huckabee as the winner of the Republican caucus (76% vs. 61%).

Knowledge about who won the Iowa Republican and Democratic caucuses also varies by education, age and attentiveness to news about the campaign. College graduates are better informed than those without a college degree. And Americans over the age of 30 are more than twice as likely as those under 30 to know that both Obama and Huckabee were winners in Iowa. Those who are following news about the campaign very closely are more likely to know the caucus winners than those who are not paying as close attention. And while men reported following the campaign more closely than women last week, men and women were equally likely to correctly identify winners of the Iowa caucuses.

Most Say Iowa Outcomes Not a Surprise

The majority of Americans who could identify the winners in Iowa were not surprised by the victories of Barack Obama or Mike Huckabee; although pre-election polls and intense campaigning in both the Democratic and Republican races showed very close contests on the eve of the caucuses. Six-in-ten Americans (59%) who knew that Obama won the Iowa Democratic caucus said that they were not surprised by the outcome. A comparable percentage of the public aware of Huckabee’s victory were not surprised (56%) by his win in Iowa. Among the public aware of Obama’s win, about a third (37%) were surprised by his victory there and among those familiar with Huckabee’s success, 41% were surprised by his victory.

Democrats familiar with the outcome were evenly divided between surprised (47%) and not surprised (51%) by Obama’s victory, while a greater percentage of Republicans (61%) and Independents (66%) were not surprised by the showing from Obama. Among those familiar with Huckabee’s victory, partisans registered similar levels of surprise with the outcome. A greater percentage of Republicans (64%) and independents (55%) than Democrats (47%) were not surprised that Huckabee won the Iowa Republican caucus.

Who Watched Caucus-Night Coverage

Three-in-ten (30%) Americans followed the results of the Iowa caucuses as they were being reported by the press. Television was far and away the public’s main source for caucus night coverage. A quarter of the public (26%) turned mainly to television for news about the Iowa election returns while only 3% went mainly to the internet and 1% to other news sources for the caucus results. No particular demographic group stood out as being the most likely to use the internet for news about the caucus results.

Young people (under age 30) and independents were less engaged in following the caucuses as they were being reported compared with older Americans and those with partisan leanings. Women and men followed the caucus night coverage in roughly equal proportions (32% vs. 28%).

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 December 30-January 4 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week was collected January 4-7 from a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults.

Bhutto Assassination Grabs America’s Attention

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was followed very closely by 32% of the public; a relatively high level of interest for news from abroad that does not involve American forces or foreign policy. In fact, as many Americans say they followed news from Pakistan very closely as report the same level of attention to the U.S. Presidential campaign. This despite receiving only a fraction of the press coverage (9%) compared with the campaign (49%).

Bhutto’s assassination and the resulting political turmoil in Pakistan was the second biggest foreign news story of the last year. Only the car bomb plot in Britain last summer attracted more interest.

One factor affecting the high overall interest in the Bhutto assassination is the equally high level of attention from both men and women. Men typically express greater interest in foreign news stories — in fact, as recently as November 25% of men said they were closely following news about political instability in Pakistan, compared with just 14% of women. But attention to the Pakistan situation spiked among women with Bhutto’s assassination. This week, women expressed just as much interest in the story (32%) as men (33%).

Iraq War and Other News

Public interest in news about the Iraq war has remained steady over the past two months. Last week, 27% of Americans followed news about the war very closely and 10% said it was the story they followed more closely than any other.

The growing controversy surrounding destroyed terrorist interrogation tapes did not register highly with the public. One-in-six (16%) followed news about the destruction of CIA tapes very closely and just 1% listed this as their top story.