Summary of Findings

Sarah Palin continued to be a dominant factor in presidential campaign coverage last week, but her impact on the race remains unclear and her public image is very much in flux.

Palin clearly has boosted John McCain’s visibility. From mid-June through the last week of August, Barack Obama consistently led McCain as the candidate the public was hearing the most about in the news. McCain received an expected bump following the Republican convention, but he continued to top Obama last week as 41% pointed to McCain as the more visible candidate while 32% named Obama. Notably, 17% said they had been hearing the most about Palin – even though they were specifically asked to name a presidential candidate.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, stories revolving around Palin accounted for 50% of the campaign coverage newshole last week. And as the public learns more about her, opinions about Palin are changing. Three-in-ten (31%) say their view of her has become more favorable in recent days, while nearly as many (27%) say their opinion has become less favorable. Only 37% say their opinion of Palin has not changed in recent days.

A solid majority (67%) heard at least a little about Palin’s recent interview with ABC News. While a plurality of those who heard about the interview (40%) said Palin did a good job, relatively few (12%) rated her performance as excellent.

With his heightened visibility, views about McCain have become more fluid as well, even as opinions of Obama and Joe Biden have largely remained stable. More than half of the public says their opinion of McCain has changed in recent days – with slightly more saying their view has become more favorable (28%) rather than less favorable (25%). Fewer than half (45%) say their opinion of the Arizona senator has not changed lately.

In contrast, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say their opinion of Obama has not changed in recent days. Some 20% say they their opinion of the Democratic nominee has become more favorable in recent days, while an equal percentage say their view of Obama has become less favorable. Similarly, 58% say their view of Biden has not changed in recent days. Among those whose opinions have changed, slightly more say their view of Obama’s running mate has become less favorable (18%) than more (14%).

Republicans More Positive About McCain and Palin

Republicans are showing more enthusiasm than Democrats for each of their nominees. Fully 53% say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days. By contrast, only 38% of Democrats say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable recently. More than half of Democrats (54%) say their view of Obama has not changed recently.

Among independents, some 28% say their opinion of McCain has become more favorable in recent days. Only 14% of independents say their opinion of Obama has become more favorable.

Republicans are also enthusiastic about Palin: 58% say their opinion of Palin has become more favorable in recent days. By contrast, only 25% of Democrats say they have come to have a more favorable view of Biden recently.

Palin’s image is split among women: 30% say their view of her has become more favorable while 29% say their view of her has become less favorable. On balance, men’s views of Palin are more favorable than less (33% vs. 25%) in the past few days.

Is Obama Changing His Tone?

About six-in-ten (58%) say they have seen a McCain television commercial in the past few days and 54% say they have seen an Obama ad. The public’s perception of the tone of the campaign ads has changed significantly over the past month.

In early August, most of those who had seen Obama’s ads said they were mainly positive messages about Obama; very few thought they were negative messages about McCain. Today, the public is divided about the tone of the Democratic nominee’s ads: 24% say they are mostly positive messages about Obama while just as many (25%) say they are negative messages about his opponent. On balance, Republicans and independents now see Obama’s ads as more negative than positive. Just the opposite was true a month ago.

Views of McCain’s television ads are similar to views of Obama’s. One-in-four say McCain’s ads are mostly positive messages about the GOP nominee, while 27% say they are mostly negative messages about his opponent. Last month, 19% said McCain’s ads were mostly positive and 31% said they were mostly negative.

The increase in the percent that now see the McCain ads as having a positive message comes primarily from Republicans and independents. Fully 42% of Republicans now say McCain’s ads are mostly positive messages about the nominee. This is up dramatically from 23% who said McCain’s ads were delivering a positive message just a month ago. Among independents, 26% now say McCain’s ads are mainly positive – up from 18% in August.

Public Continues to See Bias in Campaign Coverage

Views of how the press is covering the presidential campaign have changed little in recent months. Half of the public continues to think that the press is showing bias in its coverage of the candidates, with 36% saying the press is biased toward Obama and 14% saying it is biased in favor of McCain. Some 40% say the press has not shown bias one way or the other. In late July, 42% said the press was biased toward Obama and 6% said the press was biased toward McCain.

Most Republicans (63%) continue to say the press is biased in favor of Obama, while most Democrats (52%) say the press has not shown any bias. Notably, the percentage of Democrats who say the press is biased in favor of McCain has increased from 10% in late July to 24% now.

Lipstick on a Pig

On the campaign trail last week, Barack Obama attracted a good deal of attention when he commented from the stump that although “you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.”

His words registered widely with the public. Fully 55% heard a lot about it and another 25% heard a little. Only one-in-five heard nothing at all about Obama’s comment. Among the public who had heard a lot or little about the remark, a solid majority (66%) believe that Obama intended it as a joke about McCain’s polices. Very few (21%) say that he intended to insult Palin.

Predictably, the answers cut along party lines. Republicans are evenly divided between seeing the comment as a joke about McCain (42%) or an insult directed at Palin (43%). Democrats overwhelming interpret the comment as a joke (83%) rather than an insult (8%).

In other news, more than a third of the public (35%) heard a lot about Palin’s interview with ABC News, and a comparable percentage (32%) said that they had heard a little about it. Among those who heard a lot or little about the interview, roughly half (52%) said that her performance was excellent (12%) or good (40%), while 37% rated it only fair (22%) or poor (15%). Republicans gave Palin a far better rating than Democrats. Fully 82% of Republicans called her performance excellent or good, while just 28% of Democrats thought she performed that well. Responses by gender mirror the public as a whole.

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 8-14 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected September 12-15 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

The Presidential Campaign Then and Now: 2004 to 2008

The American public sees the current presidential campaign as more interesting — but less informative — than the Bush vs. Kerry contest in 2004.

Comparing attitudes measured shortly after the party conventions in each year, the public is more likely to describe this year’s race as interesting rather than dull. In addition, fewer Americans view the campaign’s tone as too negative compared with the 2004 contest at this point.

Currently, 68% say that the campaign is interesting, while one-in-four (26%) describe it as dull. The percentage that sees the race as interesting is up 18 points from the fall of 2004, when half found the campaign interesting and a sizeable minority (42%) described it as dull. Across many subgroups, greater percentages call the campaign interesting now than did so four years ago. Some of the greatest change is found among individuals under 30 years of age (+28%) and among Democrats (+24%).

When the public is asked to characterize the tone of the presidential campaign thus far, fewer now than in 2004 describe the race as too negative. Four years ago, more than six-in-ten (62%) said that the campaign was too negative, while just 32% said it was not. Now, 43% describe the race as too negative and a slight majority (51%) says it is not.

This shift in the balance of opinion is found across gender and party, but nowhere is it stronger than among young people (those under 30). For this group, 58% said that the campaign was too negative in 2004, while just three-in-ten (30%) describe it this way today. That is markedly different than older Americans. Among those 65 and older, a majority (61%) described the presidential race as too negative in 2004 and still half (52%) describe the campaign as too negative this year.

Where the public appears less satisfied with this campaign than with the 2004 contest is in how informative the race has been. In September four years ago, a solid majority (63%) described the campaign as informative, while a third (33%) found the campaign not informative. Currently, just over half (54%) see the campaign as informative and a substantial minority (41%) see it as not.

Hurricane Ike Draws Large News Audience

Hurricane Ike attracted a large news audience last week with 50% of the public paying very close attention to the devastating storm. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) listed Ike as the single news story they were following more closely than any other, making it the public’s top news story of the week.

The latest Pew News Interest Index survey was conducted before this week’s dramatic events on Wall Street.

Interest in news about Ike topped that of recent storms Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna and surpassed interest in news about widespread flooding in the Midwest last spring. Still, interest in Ike was nowhere near that of Hurricane Katrina – 70% of Americans were following news about Katrina very closely in September, 2005.

The public divided its attention last week between the hurricane and the presidential campaign. Interest in the campaign remained high as 40% followed campaign news very closely and 32% listed this as their most closely followed story. For its part, the national news media continued to focus heavily on the presidential race – devoting 39% of the overall newshole to campaign news. Coverage of Hurricane Ike accounted for 14% of the newshole.

News that the federal government was taking control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, last week’s biggest financial story, drew the very close attention of 28% of the public. Some 6% listed this as their most closely followed news story, and the media devoted 6% of its overall coverage to the story.

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