Although the Republican presidential candidates have had just as many debates this cycle as they did during the 2008 election, more Republicans are tuning in than ever before, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday.
Forty-seven percent of Republicans said they have seen at least one of the 15 Republican presidential debates held through the first week of January, compared with only 33 percent who reported seeing any one of the 13 Republican debates held through the end of 2007. Americans in general reported seeing at least one debate, the same as they did in the 2008 cycle.
GOP debate consumption was even higher among tea party supporters, a group the candidates have focused on in trying to build conservative support, particularly in opposition to front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Fully 65 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support the tea party movement have seen at least one debate this cycle.
Though independents in general remained less likely to have watched a debate than Democrats or Republicans -- 35 percent watched a debate compared to 34 percent in 2008 -- Republican-leaning independents were just as likely to have seen a debate as self-identified Republicans, with 47 percent saying they had seen at least one.
All of this bodes well for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has relied largely on his debate performances to attract conservative and tea party Republicans who oppose Romney’s candidacy.
One of Gingrich’s most successful debate tactics has been to go after the media, rather than his primary opponents, and the survey offered one possible explanation for his success with the tactic: Nearly half of the Republicans surveyed, 49 percent, said that there is a “great deal of bias” in the media, up from 43 percent in the 2008 cycle.
By contrast, only 37 percent of Americans in general felt that the media displays a “great deal of bias,” with 32 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of independents agreeing. Conservative Republicans were even more likely to detect bias in the media, with 57 percent of them reporting a “great deal of bias” in news coverage.
The Pew survey also found that the way Americans get their news about the presidential race has evolved. Cable television news is now the leading source of information on presidential politics, as other outlets like networks, local news channels, and newspapers have declined in importance. The drop was most dramatic for the television networks, which were a leading source of news for 45 percent of Americans in the 2000 presidential cycle compared with only 26 percent now. The biggest spike in presidential news consumption was online. According to the survey, 25 percent of Americans relied on the Internet this cycle compared with just 9 percent in 2000.
One potential problem for the Republican presidential candidates this cycle is that young people appear to be far less engaged in the race than they were in 2008. According to Pew, just 20 percent of voters under age 30 reported that they are following the 2012 presidential race “very closely,” compared with 31 percent of young respondents surveyed in January 2008. Though those numbers are discouraging for a candidate like Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose campaign has relied heavily on voters in their 20s, they also point to an opening for a candidate to bring more young voters into the process, as President Obama did in 2008.
In spite of the absence of a contested primary, Democrats have remained engaged in the electoral process. In fact, Democrats were just as likely to have watched a presidential debate as they were in 2008, the survey found, with 46 percent or respondents in each cycle saying they had seen at least one debate. Democrats were much more likely to watch a Republican presidential debate than they were in 2008, when only 34 percent reported having watched at least one debate by candidates from the opposing party.
The Pew survey was conducted Jan. 4-8, surveying 1,507 adults via both landlines and cell phone. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, with higher margins of error for subgroups.