Sabato's Crystal Ball

High Interest Election, Media Boon

An Excerpt from The Year of Obama

Diana Owen, Associate Professor, Georgetown University April 23rd, 2009

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Editor’s Note: This piece is an excerpt from the new book, edited by Larry Sabato, The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House.

The American public was more interested in the 2008 campaign than in any other in over twenty years, and attention to news reached new heights. Sixty percent of registered voters reported that they followed campaign news very closely the week before the election, compared to 52 percent in 2004 and 39 percent in 2000. An estimated 71.474 million people watched the election returns on fourteen television networks, while countless others followed online. The collective sense that the result of this campaign would be momentous for the nation, the openness of a race that did not include an incumbent president or vice president, and a dramatic story line compelled people to engage. Democrats were more interested in following campaign news than Republicans. The Democratic nominating process was more dramatic and drawn out than the Republican contest. In addition, Democrats were less familiar with Obama, who was a relatively new face on the political scene, than Republicans were with McCain, a war hero and national political figure who had sought the nomination before.

There was intense interest in the campaign in other countries, as well. People were captivated by Barak Obama’s candidacy and fascinated by the spectacle of the American electoral process. Foreign journalists worked overtime to follow the race, as news organizations stepped up coverage of the election. The Voice of America broadcast election night coverage in 44 languages to a record 134 million people worldwide.

The high levels of interest in the campaign translated into a windfall for most, but not all, media. Audience members in past elections were primarily drawn to a particular medium for most of their news. In 2008, an increasingly number of people relied on a variety of media for information, and checked on election news throughout the day.

…Television is still the main source of election information for a majority of people despite the proliferation of options. However, television news’ popularity has declined significantly since the 2004 election. The percentage of those naming television as their main source dropped to 68 percent from 76 percent. A somewhat higher percentage of people reported relying heavily on cable news for election information in 2008 (44 percent) than in 2004 (40 percent). Cable channels which adopted a thinly-veiled partisan approach to coverage fared well. MSNBC’s ratings climbed 158 percent over the previous year, as the channel played the role of ardent opponent of the Bush administration. Conservative Fox News’ ratings increased 101 percent as it continued to represent the Republican perspective. CNN , whose espoused approach was to provide news without an overt ideological spin, experienced a ratings boost of 124 percent in the final three months of the campaign. Even fake cable news programs benefitted from the election. The Daily Show with John Stewart on Comedy Central had a record audience of 3.6 million for its program featuring an interview with Barack Obama in late October.

The story was vastly different for network television news. Evening newscasts, which have seen their audiences dwindle over the past twenty years, continued their downward ratings trend, averaging 23.7 million viewers per night combined compared to 36.7 million viewers in 1991. As shown in Table 3, only 18 percent of the public said that network news was their main source of election information in 2008 compared to 29 percent in 2004. ABC’s World News lost two percent of its audience and CBS Evening News’ viewership declined three percent. NBC News was the only one of the “Big Three” networks to experience a slight increase. Industry experts noted that the drop in viewership, particularly over the summer months, likely would have been greater if it were not for the election. For the first time, more Americans got their daily news from cable (40 percent) than network programs (34 percent).

Similarly, print newspapers continued to lose readers even as the election reached its pinnacle. …The decline in the percentage of people identifying print newspapers as their primary source of information was more precipitous than for any other medium, falling from 46 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2008. Hard-copy newspapers have been forced to raise prices at the same time as they are losing readers and advertising revenue to online media. The 507 American daily newspapers averaged a 4.6 percent drop in Sunday and 3.5 percent decline in weekday paid subscriptions in the year leading up to October 2008. Circulation increased for a small number of papers, including USA Today, a national newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, whose extensive coverage of economic issues drove readership as the country experienced a financial downturn, and a handful of papers specializing in local community news. Print magazine and radio audiences also fell off in the four years between presidential elections.

Online media had the biggest election-related audience gains. Fifty-six percent of the public reported that they had gotten at least some news online, an increase of 15 percentage points over 2004. Thirty-six percent of the public named the Internet as their main source of election news. Cable news websites associated with established news organizations as well as independent news sites experienced significant bumps in the number of users they attracted. In the month prior to the election, MSNBC.com attracted 40.9 million unique visitors. Many people were drawn to the unique video features of the online news sites. Users spent an average of 42 minutes per live stream session on news sites watching the candidates give speeches and interviews. Politico, a two-year old start-up aimed at Washington insiders and political junkies, saw the circulation of its print paper rise to 26,000. Over 2.5 million people per day accessed its website, Politico.com, pulling in a national audience…

To read more of Prof. Owen, and the other journalists, policy makers, and scholars who contributed to The Year of Obama, click here to order it online.