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February 25, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Americans' Attention To Campaign Rises, As Does Their Perception That The Campaign Has Turned Negative

Voter Involvement Index

The Republican presidential primaries have turned out a record number of voters and spurred the public's attention to the campaign. But Americans also believe the campaign has turned negative, a trend they find discouraging.

  Public Response to Tone of Presidential Campaign

Source: Shorenstein Center poll.
Sampling error: ±6%

The weekly Shorenstein Center national poll for February 18-22 found that over half of Americans are paying at least some attention to the campaign and that a fourth are paying relatively close attention. Before the New Hampshire primary, 60% claimed to be paying little or no attention to the campaign. "There has been a dramatic shift in public interest in the campaign," says Thomas Patterson, acting director of the Shorenstein Center and the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The excitement surrounding the McCain candidacy is a major reason for the shift."

The Shorenstein poll also found that by a margin of 39% to 28% Americans perceive the campaign to be more negative than positive in tone. This is a reversal of the perception that existed immediately after the New Hampshire primary. Then, by a margin of 43% to 27%, Americans claimed that the campaign had been more positive than negative.

  Voter Involvement Index
Feb. 18-22 37%
Feb. 16-20 35%
Feb. 9-13 34%
Feb. 4-9 30%
Feb. 2-6 38%
Jan. 27-30 32%
Jan. 21-27 33%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

The public's view corresponds with the pattern in network news coverage of the Republican primary campaign. Since New Hampshire, the focus of Republican candidates' quotes on the evening news has shifted from advocating their own strengths to criticizing their opponents' weaknesses. This is particularly true of George W. Bush. Before New Hampshire he was almost equally likely to be quoted talking about himself as his rival John McCain (34% to 37%). Since then, by a margin of 58% to 38%, his sound bites have been targeted at McCain.

As the campaign has become more negative, Americans have increasingly said they are "discouraged" by what's happening in the campaign-the percentage has risen from 25% to 39%. Yet they are not so discouraged that they are tuning out the campaign or staying home from the polls. "There's an interesting anomaly in these numbers," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, of which the Shorenstein polls are a component. "The American people say they don't like the campaign turning so negative; and yet the more negatively it's perceived, the more people are turning out to vote in fact, in record numbers. So negativity does not now deflate numbers."

The survey results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted February 2-6, February 9-13, February 16-20, and February 18-22, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

Media content analysis data provided by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Results of CMPA research will be posted weekly on its daily online magazine, NewsWatch. Located at, the publication critically examines the content of print and broadcast news.

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