Changing News Habits Make Kerry Negatives
One of the interesting developments in this year’s election is the rapid rise in Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) negatives after winning the primaries. Recent surveys have put his negatives in the high 30s, and Zogby (April 15-17) had Kerry’s unfavorables at 40 percent. Fox/Opinion Dynamics (May 4-5) had his unfavorables higher than his favorables (39-40), and NBC/Wall Street Journal (May 1-3) had his positives and negatives even at 38-38.
However, it is in the Democracy Corps surveys that we see the negative change in attitude toward Kerry most clearly. They do a thermometer rating on people and individuals where zero represents a very cold, unfavorable view, and 100 represents a very warm, favorable opinion. In February, Kerry was at 52.2 ahead of the NRA (51.2), pro-life groups (48.5) and big corporations (48.5). In the most recent survey, in May Kerry had dropped to 47.7 and his image was now worse than the NRA (51.2), pro-life groups (48.5) and big corporations (48.5). Many Democrats defend Kerry’s standing by claiming that the numbers are not real and arguing that voters have not really focused on the election or Kerry nor have they heard much from him. When they do, they claim, Kerry’s image and his numbers will improve significantly.
I believe Kerry’s negatives are real and, in fact, are more solidly entrenched than either Democrats or even some Republicans would believe. The reason why may surprise you. It’s because of the media — not how they’re reporting politics, but how Americans are getting the campaign news that structurally changes politics.
Sept. 11, 2001, changed how people get their news in a very fundamental way. The demand for real-time information increased significantly, and after that event, cable audiences jumped significantly. In focus groups I did after Sept. 11, it was remarkable how many people had seen the second plane fly into the World Trade Center as it was happening. It was equally apparent that they were looking at politics differently and consuming news differently. The demand for real-time news became more sustained behavior than passing interest. An important structural change had taken place that impacted how people got their news and how much news they wanted. Clearly, they wanted more, perhaps a lot more, and the source of that kind of news was cable
In a Pew Poll conducted in 2000, 45 percent of respondents said they got information about candidates and campaigns from nightly network news and 34 percent said they got it from cable network news. In a survey completed in the beginning of 2004, those numbers had flipped. Thirty-eight percent said they got their information from cable network news and 35 percent said from nightly network news. This is a significant shift and reflects two things — getting Americans to do appointment viewing (turning their TV on at a specific hour) is becoming more and more difficult, and convenience and access are driving consumer decision-making, at least in part, when it comes to news. Cable news is available 24 hours a day on a variety of different channels, and that accommodates the lifestyle of Americans far better than the network news seen only at 6:30 or 7 p.m. If cable meets people’s information needs and does it with credibility and convenience, people will consume it.
How has this translated into political behavior? While people may not be intentionally following the campaigns, the amount of news they watch certainly contains plenty of political fodder — and osmosis works. In a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (May 7-9), 64 percent of Americans said they had given quite a lot of thought to the upcoming election for president, while only 4 percent said they had given no thought.
Cable isn’t the only entrant in the real-time news sweepstakes. The Internet is fast becoming a political player, too. In 2000, 15 percent of people got their information from weekly magazines and 9 percent from the Internet, now that has flipped and the Internet outperforms weekly magazines like Time and Newsweek, 13 percent to 10 percent. The long view for the Internet is even more remarkable. Among voters 18-29, 20 percent get their news from the Internet and only 23 percent get it from the nightly network news. Speed and access is behind this trend, and it won’t be long before the Internet leaves the networks in the dust.
So what does this do to political strategizing? It turns the old maxim that voters only pay attention to political campaigns close to the election on its head. Instead, we find that voters are developing impressions all the time which are shaping either the context in which their opinions are forming (how do they think the economy is doing?) or shaping their impression of the candidates directly. Remember the Dean scream?
This means that Kerry may have be suffering from a cable age version of what Michael Dukakis endured in 1988, in the network news age. He let himself be defined by his opponent because he assumed no one was paying attention that early in the game. In 1988, early would have been defined as the late July, early August time period. In the cable era, however, we’re learning that impressions begin to set when the candidate is first presented to the public. After the primaries in March, many voters began to form their first pictures of Kerry as the newly minted Democrat standard bearer but, for many, the first picture they remember is snowboarding, or his remarkable $87 billion flip-flop vote on funding the war.
People were paying attention, not because they were focused on political news, but because behaviorally they now watch more news and want updates on everything from terror alerts to sports scores when they want it. So this spring, while people may have been watching cable for other reasons having nothing to do with Kerry, they got a lot of news about him, his biography, and his record that drove their initial impressions which, for many, were negative. Changing initial impressions, as any political operative will tell you, isn’t easy.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.