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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Convention Impact Update

Our data from last weekend showed a major partisan skew in terms of self-reports of watching the Republican Convention in Tampa. Seventy percent of Republicans reported watching a great deal or some of the convention, compared with 46% of Democrats (and an even lower 42% of independents). Of course, that means that not all Republicans were enthralled with the convention, given that 30% watched very little or none at all. But over half of Democrats watched very little or none at all.

We won’t have data until this weekend on the comparable viewing of the Democratic Convention happening in Charlotte this week. But I think it’s fair to assume that viewing will be the mirror image of what we saw for the GOP Convention. Democrats will be watching much more than Republicans.

We have some initial confirmation of that from early reports of the ratings of the cable news channels for the two conventions. Fox News was the ratings champ during the GOP Convention last week. So far this week, MSNBC and its sister network NBC appear to be the ratings champs at the Democratic Convention.

This gives us good suggestive evidence that the partisan viewing patterns continue --  given all of the evidence that the Fox News audience is disproportionately Republican, while the MSNBC audience is disproportionately Democratic. Pew Research shows that Republicans, for example, are much more likely to cite Fox as their main source of news than Democrats, by more than a 3-to-1 ratio. The opposite pattern pertains to MSNBC. 

An interesting McClatchy-Marist poll this summer showed that 76% of those who watch MSNBC approved of the job Barack Obama was doing as president, compared with 23% of those who watched Fox News.

And, still another interesting study released by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that the portrayal of Mitt Romney and Obama on Fox News and MSNBC are “mirror images” of each other. As the authors say: “Fox has offered a mixed view of Romney, but its assessments of Obama's record and character have run negative by a measure of six to one. The numbers are almost identical, in reverse, for MSNBC.”

None of this is surprising to anyone who watches Fox News and MSNBC at night.  Both are now explicitly partisan in their prime-time approaches, presumably operating under the economic assumption that the best way to maximize ratings and revenue is to lock-in motivated, emotional, passionate groups of viewers who feel strongly about their particular political views of the world.

The skewed partisan viewing of the two conventions, of course, further raises the question of the purpose and impact of the conventions.

Efforts to use the conventions to change the minds of those who are voting for the opposite party’s candidate present a real challenge, given that a lot of those people simply aren’t watching. That doesn’t mean that the opponent’s people don’t pick up some news of the convention through secondary references. They probably do. Democrats probably saw and heard plenty of references to the now famous Clint Eastwood speech in Tampa, and no doubt Republicans can't avoid seeing and hearing references to Bill Clinton's speech on Wednesday night in Charlotte. But it doesn’t appear that vast numbers of Obama voters were glued to the set watching the Republican speeches last week, nor that vast numbers of Romney voters are intently watching the Democrats’ speeches this week.

Going along with that, we didn't see any significant shift in vote intentions following the GOP convention.  On the other hand, we are beginning to see some stronger support for Obama over the last couple of nights (Tue and Wed).  Obama's job approval rating is up based on our three-day rolling average (check here for updates each day at 1:00pm Eastern) and we'll continue to see if there is a concomitant uptick in our 7-day rolling average of the trial heat in the days ahead.

However, another major purpose of the conventions is to reinforce those who are already committed -- to increase motivation and enthusiasm among the core, base vote. The viewing data suggest that the conventions are much better situated to accomplish that objective.

I should note that the impact of Bill Clinton’s speech on Wednesday night may have been muted by competing programming on NBC -- the Giants vs. Cowboys NFL football game. Here we had the first game of the football season: a "red state" NFL football team playing (and defeating) a "blue state" football team. That may have meant that even Democrats were drawn away from the convention to watch the game.

Finally, it's also important to note that our Gallup data suggest that the Democrats apparently have more of a need to fire up their base than the Republicans. For the entire month of August, 85% of Romney voters we interviewed said they would definitely vote in November, compared to 78% of Obama voters. That may change after the conventions. But it shows that, based on this metric, the Democrats have somewhat more of a challenge than the Republicans in terms of getting their base motivated to get out and vote.

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