Summary of Findings

With less than three weeks to go before the election, there is a growing sense among the public that the tone of the presidential campaign has changed. A majority of Americans (55%) now say that the campaign is too negative. This is up significantly from 43% a month ago and represents a dramatic change from the beginning of the primary season when only 28% said the campaign was too negative. Perceptions of the tone of the current campaign are nearly identical to views of the 2004 presidential campaign. In October, 2004, 57% of registered voters said the campaign was too negative.

In spite of criticism about the tone of the campaign, the public remains highly engaged in the process. Fully 71% say the campaign is interesting, and a strong majority (63%) says the campaign has been informative thus far. Furthermore, the percent saying the campaign is too long has actually fallen since April, when the election was still more than six months away.

Democrats and independents are more likely than Republicans to say the campaign has been too negative. In September, there were only slight differences among the three groups – Democrats, independents and Republicans all narrowly said the campaign was not too negative. Today, 62% of Democrats and 57% of independents say the campaign is too negative, while only 47% of Republicans agree.

Changing sentiments about the tone of the campaign coincide with a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans who have seen the presidential candidates’ television commercials in recent weeks. Fully 80% say they have seen a television commercial on behalf of Barack Obama’s candidacy recently and nearly as many (76%) report having seen a commercial on behalf of John McCain. In mid-September, only 54% of the public had seen an ad for Obama and 58% had seen a McCain ad.

On balance, those who have seen Obama’s ads believe they are truthful. Nearly half (47%) say Obama’s ads are truthful, while 24% say they are not truthful. The public is more evenly split over the truthfulness of McCain’s campaign ads: 35% say they are truthful, while 33% say they are not.

Democrats overwhelmingly believe that Obama’s television ads are truthful, while they doubt the veracity of McCain’s. Similarly, Republicans believe McCain’s ads are truthful, while a plurality says Obama’s are not. Independents have a much more favorable view of Obama’s ads than they do of McCain’s. By a margin of 42%-26% independents say Obama’s ads are truthful. When it comes to McCain’s ads, independents are evenly divided: 32% say they are truthful and 33% say they are not.

Campaign: Interesting, Informative and Long

The public has consistently found the presidential campaign to be interesting. Seven-in-ten said it was interesting in February 2008; 59% in April; and 68% in mid-September.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) now say the campaign has been informative, while only 34% say it has not been informative. Democrats are more likely than Republicans or independents to find the campaign interesting and informative. Fully 80% of Democrats say the campaign has been interesting, compared with 70% of Republicans and 65% of independents. Similarly, while 70% of Democrats say the campaign has been informative, fewer independents (61%) and Republicans (57%) agree.

A majority of the public (57%) says the campaign has been too long, while 39% say it has not been too long. Republicans and independents are more likely than Democrats to say the campaign has been too long. This year’s voters are somewhat more likely than voters in 2004 to say the campaign has been too long (57% this year vs. 51% in 2004).

McCain, Palin Images Becoming Less Favorable

The public continued to pay close attention to campaign news last week. More than half (52%) say they followed the campaign very closely, down marginally from 57% the previous week. Fully half have heard a lot about Obama’s connection to former 1960’s radical William Ayers, while 35% have heard a little about this. Only 15% say they haven’t heard anything at all about the Ayers controversy. Roughly equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans have heard a lot about this story. Compared to other campaign events, public awareness of the Ayers story is similar to awareness of videos of Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright making controversial statements when that story first broke earlier this year (51% had heard a lot about the Wright videos in late March).

Public views of the candidates continue to fluctuate. For John McCain and Sarah Palin, changing views are more negative than positive. In the survey conducted Oct. 10-13, fully a third of the public say their opinion of McCain has become less favorable in recent days, while only 17% say their view of the GOP nominee has become more favorable.

Views of Sarah Palin also turned more negative: 38% say their opinion of Palin has become less favorable in recent days, while 21% say their opinion of the Alaska governor has become more favorable. Palin’s public image had improved significantly the week of the vice presidential debate. Since then, the views of Republicans, who rallied behind her after the debate, have become more static, and the views of independents have become less favorable.

Obama’s image improved somewhat last week: 29% say their view of the Democratic nominee has become more favorable in recent days while 21% say it has become less favorable. Views of Joe Biden have changed relatively little: 23% say their opinion of Biden has become more favorable recently, 14% say their opinion has become less favorable and 56% say their view of Biden has not changed in recent days.

While the two presidential candidates received roughly the same amount of news coverage last week, Obama was clearly the most visible candidate in the eyes of the public. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Obama was featured prominently in 79% of all campaign news stories last week and McCain was featured in 74%. More than half of the public (53%) says Obama was the candidate they heard the most about in the news last week, while only 25% name McCain.

McCain was the most visible candidate for two weeks during and after the Republican convention. Since that time, Obama has been steadily boosting his position as the most heard about candidate.

Ratings of Campaign Coverage Improve

Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, public opinion is divided on the question of how well the press is covering the race. A slim majority (53%) rates coverage of the campaign as excellent or good, while another 45% say it is only fair or poor. In June, press ratings were nearly the reverse, with a narrow majority (54%) calling the coverage only fair or poor and somewhat fewer rating it excellent or good (43%).

Impressions of press coverage run strongly along party lines. In the current poll, fully 70% of Democrats rate press coverage positively, but fewer than four-in-ten (38%) Republicans share this view. Independents, meanwhile, are divided on the subject. From June to now, the opinions of Republicans have not changed, but among Democrats the share who rate the job the press is doing positively increased 20 points (50% ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ in June and 70% now).

A greater percentage of women than men give the press high marks on how well they are covering the campaign. Six-in-ten women (59%) rate the job the press is doing as excellent or good, while fewer than half (46%) of men do. Notably, in early June at the close of primary season, majorities of both men (55%) and women (54%) saw campaign coverage as only fair or poor.

Opinions about the quality of campaign coverage appear to be correlated with age. A 59% majority of young people (ages 18-34) rate press coverage positively, while middle-aged Americans are more divided on the quality of campaign reporting. Among older Americans (those 65 and older), most say the coverage is only fair or poor (53%), compared with 44% who say it is excellent or good.

From the public’s perspective, some aspects of the presidential campaign have been covered better than others. Americans give the press high marks for coverage of the candidate debates and reporting on which candidate is leading in the latest polls. For both of these facets of the campaign, 62% say that the press has done an excellent or good job and a third says its performance has been only fair or poor.

About half (52%) say that the press has done only a fair or poor job in covering campaign strategies and the same percentage says this about coverage of the candidates’ positions on issues. Somewhat fewer view coverage of these two aspects of the campaign positively. In both cases, 44% say that campaign reporting has been excellent or good.

The area in which the public sees the greatest weakness in campaign coverage is in news about the candidates’ personal backgrounds and experiences. A majority (54%) say that the press has done only a fair or poor job, while roughly four-in-ten (41%) say the coverage has been excellent or good.

As seen in their overall ratings of campaign coverage, Republicans express more critical views on specific aspects of campaign reporting than either Democrats or independents. Roughly two thirds of Republicans offer only fair or poor ratings for how well the press has covered campaign strategies (66%), candidates’ backgrounds (65%) and the issue positions they hold (64%).

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 October 6-12 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected October 10-13 from a nationally representative sample of 1,006 adults.

Public Still Focused on Economic News

A substantial majority of Americans (65%) continued to pay very close attention to news about the economy last week. This is down slightly from 69% the previous week but still extremely high from a historical perspective. In addition, 59% followed news about the recent downturn in the U.S. stock market very closely. Interest in stock market news was particularly high among college graduates, those with annual household incomes of $75,000 or higher and those 50 and older.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) list either economic conditions or the stock market drop as the single news story they followed more closely than any other last week. One-in-four (24%) list the campaign as their most closely followed story. For its part, the national news media divided its focus between the economy and the campaign last week. According to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 41% of the national newshole last week was devoted to the presidential campaign, while 36% was devoted to the current financial crisis.

In a footnote to the larger economic crisis, 52% of the public say they heard a lot about executives from insurance giant AIG holding a retreat at a luxury resort shortly after the company received billions of dollars from the federal government. Another 26% heard a little about this story and 21% heard nothing at all. Nearly as many (48%) heard a lot about General Motors stock falling to its lowest level in 58 years. Relatively few Americans heard a lot about last weekend’s White House meeting among President Bush and G-7 finance ministers (29%).

In other news last week, 23% of the public followed news about the Iraq war very closely and 19% paid very close attention to news about the war in Afghanistan. Very few listed either of these stories as their most closely followed news story of the week (2% for each). Only 8% followed news of O.J. Simpson’s conviction on charges of kidnapping and armed robbery very closely. Another 13% followed the news fairly closely. The public was much more interested in this story when Simpson was arrested in September, 2007: 13% followed news about the arrest very closely, 27% followed it fairly 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