Summary of Findings

The American public paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign last week as the Republican Party took center stage. More than half watched at least some television coverage of the Republican convention in St. Paul, and the speech by GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin stands out as the highlight of the event. And perhaps as a consequence, by the end of the week, John McCain’s image had improved significantly.

In a poll conducted September 5-8, 35% say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days, while 24% say their opinion of the Republican nominee has become less favorable. This marks the second week in a row where changing opinions of McCain have been more positive than negative. For her part, Palin appears to have helped boost McCain’s image, and her convention speech drew a highly favorable response. However, only a narrow majority (52%) says she is qualified to serve as president, while 39% say she is not qualified.

McCain’s image has improved primarily among Republicans, 65% of whom say their opinion of the GOP presidential nominee has become more favorable in recent days. While McCain’s big week moved Republicans’ opinions, there was little change in the views of Democrats and independents.

McCain’s image also improved among women. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) women say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days – up from 24% the previous week. Among men, 33% say their view of McCain has improved in recent days; this compares with 32% who said the same the previous week.

Obama’s image was largely unchanged last week. While 20% say they have come to have a more favorable opinion of him in recent days, an identical percentage says their opinion is less favorable; most people (59%) say their opinion of Obama has not changed. A week earlier, just after the Democratic convention, 29% said their opinion of Obama had improved recently compared with 19% who said their view of him had become less favorable.

Lukewarm Reaction to McCain’s Speech

While his image was clearly boosted in the wake of the GOP convention, there is little public enthusiasm about McCain’s convention speech. Among those who were able to rate the speech, only 19% thought it was excellent, another 43% said it was good, and 38% judged it only fair or poor. Even most Republicans who saw McCain’s speech were hesitant to rate it as excellent. Most rated it good (50%) or only fair (16%).

Barack Obama’s convention speech was much better received by the public. Among those who could rate Obama’s speech, 48% rated it as excellent and another 35% thought it was good. Just 17% said it was only fair or poor. Fully 66% of Democrats thought Obama’s speech was excellent.

Reactions to Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech were far more positive than reactions to McCain’s speech and comparable with the response to Obama’s speech. Overall, 45% of those who could rate Palin’s speech said it was excellent, while another 31% said it was good.

Republicans were extremely enthusiastic about Palin’s convention speech. About eight-in-ten Republicans (81%) who saw the speech rated it excellent. The Alaska governor’s speech was also well received by independents. A solid majority of independents who could rate Palin’s speech said it was either excellent or good (75%), while only 25% said it was fair or poor. However, only 55% of Democrats gave the speech an excellent or good rating.

Palin’s Qualifications

A narrow majority of Americans (52%) say Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as president if it becomes necessary; 39% say she is not qualified and 9% are undecided. Republicans overwhelmingly believe Palin is qualified (84%); by contrast, two-thirds of Democrats (66%) say she is not qualified. By a modest margin (49% to 40%), independents say Palin is qualified to serve as president if necessary.

Substantially more people say Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden is qualified to serve as president than say the same about Palin (66% vs. 52%). Large majorities of Democrats (82%) and independents (64%) say Biden is qualified to be president, as do 51% of Republicans.

Twenty years ago, voters were evenly divided over whether GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle was qualified to step in as president. Shortly after George H.W. Bush announced that Quayle would be his running mate, just 41% of the public thought Quayle was qualified to serve as president, just as many (40%) said he was not qualified. Quayle was judged even more harshly in the weeks following his nomination. Quayle’s rival, Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen, was widely viewed as qualified to serve as president.

There is no gender gap in views about Palin’s readiness to be president; men and women are equally likely to say she is qualified to serve if necessary. Opinions do differ, however, according to level of education. While just 49% of those who attended college say Palin is qualified to serve as president, as many as 59% of those with less education think she could step into the job if necessary. Just the opposite is true for Joe Biden: college graduates are among the most likely to think the Delaware senator is prepared to be president.

GOP Convention Highlights

Palin’s acceptance speech – and her presence on the GOP ticket – were clearly the highlights of the GOP convention. Among those who watched at least a little of the convention coverage, fully half cited Palin’s speech as the convention highlight, while an additional 5% cited either the presence of a woman on a major party ticket (4%) or the selection of Palin as the vice presidential nominee (1%). Nearly three times as many people cited Palin’s speech as the GOP convention highlight as cited McCain’s address (50% vs. 17%). A week earlier, 38% cited Obama’s speech as the highlight of the Democratic convention.

An overwhelming majority of Republicans who watched at least a little of the convention coverage (70%) named Palin’s speech as the GOP convention highlight, compared with just 15% who cited McCain’s speech. Slightly more than a third of Democrats (35%) also said Palin’s speech was the convention highlight; about a quarter of Democrats (26%) said there was no GOP convention highlight. Women were more likely than men to say that Palin’s speech was the convention’s highlight (56% vs. 43%).

Convention Viewership

A solid majority of the public (56%) say they watched all or most (23%) of the Republican convention or some of the coverage (33%). A week earlier, somewhat fewer (46%) said they watched at least some of the Democratic convention.

Roughly half of Democrats (49%) say they watched at least some of the GOP convention. That compares with just 30% of Republicans who watched at least some of the Democratic convention.

For their part, Republican enthusiasm for the GOP convention may have grown over the past several weeks. In a Pew survey last month, fewer Republicans than Democrats said they were very interested in watching their party’s convention (39% vs. 51%). However, when the conventions aired, Republicans were just as likely as Democrats to say they watched at least some of the coverage of their party’s convention (69% of Republicans vs. 67% of Democrats). See “Strong Advance Interest in Democratic Convention,” August 21, 2008.

Getting to Know Sarah Palin

about Sarah Palin dominated campaign news coverage last week. According to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Palin was featured prominently in 60% of campaign stories. Palin garnered more media coverage than McCain, who was featured in 52% of campaign stories, and much more than Obama and Biden combined (24%). The media’s focus on the GOP ticket made McCain the most visible presidential candidate for the first time since Pew’s Weekly News Interest began tracking candidate visibility in March of this year.

Beyond focusing on the historic nature of Palin’s selection to be McCain’s running mate, much of the media’s coverage dealt with Palin’s background – both personal and professional. The public picked up on various storylines to differing degrees. News that Palin’s 17 year-old-daughter is pregnant registered widely with the public. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say they heard a lot about Palin’s daughter, making the story one of the year’s top campaign events. More people say they heard a lot about Palin’s pregnant daughter than about speeches by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, in May (62%).

Only about half as many Americans heard a lot about Palin’s record on reform and government spending as governor of Alaska as heard about her pregnant daughter: 35% heard a lot about this and another 48% heard a little. Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to have heard a lot about this aspect of Palin’s background (45% vs. 31%).

A third of the public has heard a lot about questions regarding how well the McCain campaign reviewed Palin’s background before selecting her as the vice presidential nominee; 43% have heard a little about this. Only three-in-ten have heard a lot about the investigation into whether Palin used her influence as governor to attempt to have her ex-brother-in-law removed from the state police force. Fully 28% have heard nothing at all about this.

Views of Palin Coverage

McCain’s surprise pick of Palin dramatically shifted the focus of the media to this largely unknown newcomer to the national stage. The public is closely divided over whether the amount of coverage of Palin’s background has been appropriate, and over whether the coverage has been fair or unfair.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) say news organizations are devoting about the right amount of coverage to Palin’s background, while 43% say news organizations are giving this story too much coverage; just 7% say Palin’s background has received too little coverage.

Half say that news coverage of Palin has been fair while slightly fewer (46%) say it has been unfair. Notably, public opinion about the amount and quality of news coverage of Palin is more positive than it was for coverage of Quayle in August 1988. Shortly after Bush named Dan Quayle as his running mate, questions were raised about his level of experience and his service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. In August 1988, about two-thirds (69%) thought news organizations were giving too much coverage to issues surrounding Quayle’s past, while 26% said they thought the amount of coverage had been about right. A majority (55%) said news organizations had been unfair in their coverage of Quayle, while 39% said they had been fair.

In general, most Americans (70%) say it is important to learn about the details of Palin’s background so they can judge whether she would be a good vice president. In Quayle’s case, far fewer (56%) said it was important to learn about his past in order to judge whether he would make a good vice president.

There is a stark partisan divide in views about the fairness of press coverage of Palin. By 65% to 30%, Republicans believe that news organizations have been unfair in their coverage of Palin. Democrats, by nearly an identical margin (66% to 30%), say the coverage has been fair. Roughly half of independents (51%) see the coverage as fair, while 44% see it as unfair.

But there are only slight partisan differences in opinions about the amount of coverage of Palin’s background. And comparably large majorities of Democrats (72%), independents (70%) and Republicans (70%) say it is important to learn about Palin’s background in order to judge whether she would be a good vice president.

Men are about as likely as women to say that coverage of Palin has been fair (52% vs. 48%). There are no major gender differences in views of the amount of coverage or whether it is important to learn details about her background.

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 September 1-7 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 5-8 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

News Interest Index

News about the 2008 presidential campaign topped the public’s interest and the media’s agenda last week. More than four-in-ten (42%) Americans cited the campaign as the story they were following most closely during a week in which the media devoted 58% of all news coverage to campaign stories.

Hurricane Gustav and to a lesser extent Tropical Storm Hanna were also big stories last week. One-in-five (21%) cited Gustav as their top story while one-in-ten (11%) were most interested in news about Hanna. Gustav accounted for 17% of the newshole and Hanna another 4%.

In other news last week, the economy continued to capture public interest with 44% of the public following economic news very closely and 13% calling it their most closely followed story. News about the Iraq war attracted the very close attention of one-four (24%) and the resignation of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was followed very closely by 10% of the public.

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