The barrage of attack ads traded by President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney in recent weeks has tainted personal conversations about both candidates, raising early questions about whether the public will engage in the presidential race or decide it's a turnoff and tune it out.
GRAPHIC: Talk Tracker
The first weekly "Conversation Nation'' report, a joint project of National Journal and the Keller Fay Group, a survey research firm, finds that 44 percent of the talk about the president in early June was positive, while 36 percent was negative. After some ups and downs, 37 percent of the Obama talk was positive at the start of this week, while 42 percent was negative. None
Conversations about Romney were not as positive in early June compared to the president, but negative conversations about the presumptive Republican nominee, after zig-zagging, did not increase over the course of the survey. Talk about Romney shifted from 36 percent positive and 41 negative to 31 percent positive and 38 percent negative.
Overall, daily chatter about Romney spiked at the end of last week amid mounting attacks on his business record and demands that he release more tax returns. However, the attacks do not appear to be fueling a torrent of Romney-bashing, as least for now.
The shifts in conversation -- 77 percent of which occurred face to face even as technology dominates daily lives -- reflect the increasingly brutal tone of the campaign as polls show the candidates neck-and-neck.
Even with the contest in high gear, dieting, shopping, vacation, job security and the costs of health care and gas were more popular topics of discussion than the president and the election. The lack of engagement is likely to continue until the nominating conventions burst onto prime time in late August and early September, after the Summer Olympics. It's unclear whether the nasty tone of the campaign, if it continues, will ultimately repel voters from one candidate or the other or keep them from the polls altogether.
The level of interest among voters appears to wax and wane with news cycles. Since early June, conversations about the administration peaked after the Supreme Court upheld its health care overhaul and after a disappointing jobs report in June. Talk about Romney jumped after news reports that detailed his former company's practice of outsourcing jobs and criticism of his campaign strategy.
That Obama continues to earn more positive word of mouth than Romney "“ 37 percent compared to 31 percent "“ suggests the president can continue to tap into a reservoir of good will despite signs that the economic recovery is stalling. But with negative talk about him on the rise, his campaign is taking a risk, betting that relentlessly attacking Romney and tarnishing Obama's image in the process will pay off in the end.
Obama's team is trying to take advantage of Romney's relatively lower profile at this stage of the campaign by going on the offensive before the public forms stronger opinions about the former governor of Massachusetts. While mostly negative conversations about Romney dipped in the last six weeks, "mixed" conversations have increased.
Hispanics, women and college graduates are more likely to talk about the president than about Romney. Wealthier adults are having more conversations about the Republican nominee. African-Americans, the first black president's most loyal supporters, are most apt to talk about Obama.
About This Poll:
The National Journal and Keller Fay Group, a survey research firm, have partnered to track Americans' online and face-to-face conversations about the 2012 presidential race. Each week Keller Fay's TalkTrack® research service interviews a nationally representative online sample of approximately 615 Americans aged 18 to 69, to determine which candidates and issues people are talking about and the nature of those conversations. Ed Keller and Brad Fay are co-authors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace (Free Press: 2012).