Most Voters Aren't Stupid

During the February 22 Republican primary debate in Arizona, moderator John King of CNN set up a question about global instability and the president’s ability to affect gas prices by noting that “the American people often don't pay much attention to what's going on in the world until they have to.” The next day, Politico media blogger Dylan Byers flagged the question, describing it “as a comment that warranted explanation” even though it was “not necessarily wrong.” Later that day, King sent Byers a statement defending his question, claiming that he “did not ‘suggest’ and would never suggest Americans are uninformed.”

Truth is, the public is poorly informed about politics and public policy, something that has proved true since the start of election survey research. In a 2007 survey, the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press quizzed the public on an array of public affairs questions. Translating the results into a common grading rubric, they found “Americans did not fare too well. Fully half would have failed, while only about one-in-six would have earned an A or B.” These findings were generally consistent with polling conducted 20 years earlier by Pew.  

These findings all too often get reduced to calling the electorate stupid. The quadrennial “stupid” debate roared back to life earlier this month when Politico’s Alexander Burns posted a story—framed with a still from Forrest Gump— asking “how much do voters know?” Burns’ article focused on issues on which polls show voters with either inconsistent views or factually incorrect views, arguing that “it’s entirely questionable whether the great mass of voters has even the most basic grasp of the details – or for that matter, the most elementary factual components – of the national political debate.” The money quote was provided by Democratic pollster Tom Jensen, who declared, “The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid.”

Burns never explicitly called the electorate stupid, but Jensen’s quote and the general uncomfortable findings of the reporting led to cries that Politico was calling voters stupid and “a gaggle of Gumps.” The case for judicious interpretations of Burns’s article wasn’t helped by his co-blogger Maggie Haberman, who titled her post linking to the article “Are voters dumb,” or his editor-in-chief, John Harris, who explained during a segment on Politico’s primary night livestream that he had tasked Burns to “do a piece looking at the question of whether voters are stupid and a lot of the things that they say in these polls are just plain stupid.” Harris backed away from his castigation of voter intelligence later in the livestream, saying that the pollsters Burns spoke to didn’t “literally” mean that “voters are stupid” but rather that many respond to poll questions “in the context of ignorance."

But, Harris’s take was undermined by his push to include the Forrest Gump picture in the story. Harris claimed that Gump was used to illustrate “the sort of ignorant voters out there who are saying these wacky things in polls.” But Forrest Gump wasn’t just ignorant or misinformed. He was stupid, or intellectually challenged, or however you would like to politely say that he had lower than average mental ability.

With a message like that, it’s not surprising that Politico has drawn some ire for their crack at the voter competence question.

The Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins called Burns’ article “incredibly long and unbearably daft.” Upon watching Harris’s livestream monologue, Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple concluded that Harris himself sounded stupid due to his overuse of the word “stupid.” He also charged Politico with elitism, arguing that the article “could just as easily be titled: ‘Why aren’t voters as brilliant as Politico staffers?’” Slate’s Dave Weigel was one of the only writers who came to Burns’ defense, writing that “stupid voters exist,” and that reporters shouldn’t apologize for reporting what they actually say.

Missing from the entire debate spurred by Politico is any perspective from academics who have been been tussling with the issue of voter knowledge and its implications for over half a century.

In What Americans Know About Politics And Why It Matters, Michael Delli Carpini, currently dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, and Scott Keeter, currently director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, argue that differing levels of political knowledge result from an interaction of ability, opportunity, and motivation. And, in the words of seminal scholar Philip Converse, “‘Dumbness’ as commonly conceived is but a part of one of these sources.” Stupidity, which “implies a lack of aptitude or intelligence,” is not the primary problem, according to George Washington University political scientist John Sides. Instead, ignorance “is more the problem, since a lot of non-stupid people don't necessarily follow politics very closely.” “I don't follow hockey and don't know very much about it, but that doesn't make me stupid,” Sides told me (full disclosure: I am currently taking a class on public opinion taught by Sides).

But people who don’t pay close attention to politics still answer pollsters’ questions when they get called. One of the more compelling explanations for the befuddlement often found in mass opinion surveys was provided by UCLA political science professor John Zaller in his book, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Essentially, citizens are constantly exposed to political information, often loaded with opposing viewpoints, but because most people generally pay little attention to politics, they internalize the information relatively uncritically, filling their minds with partially consistent ideas. When asked a survey question, they sample across the immediately accessible ideas in their memory and answer based on the salient considerations at the “top of the head, which can be influenced by wording, framing from political elites, and whatever information was consumed most recently.

To take an example of unsophisticated voter views from Burns’s article, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe the president can do a lot about the price of gasoline despite expert consensus that he can’t. It’s probably not unrelated that one of the main streams of elite discourse on the issue has been Republicans blaming Obama for the price of gas.

How concerned should we be about these low levels of political knowledge? The situation may not be as worrying as the facts suggest. One school of optimism says that the uninformed errors of individual voters will cancel out through the miracle of aggregation, leading to collective decisions that are rational. Another upbeat suggestion is that uninformed voters can use information shortcuts to make competent voting decisions. University of Michigan political scientist Arthur Lupia, for instance, has found that knowledge of interest group positions can lead poorly informed voters to make similar choices on ballot questions as relatively well-informed voters.

This doesn’t mean negative consequences to voter ignorance are nonexistent. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels found that “political ignorance matters—not only for individual votes, but also for election outcomes.” In a 1996 article, he simulated a fully informed electorate and found that “on average, Democrats do almost two percentage points better and incumbents do almost five percentage points better than they would if all voters in presidential elections were, in fact, fully informed.” In close elections, those differences could have real consequences.

Low levels of public political knowledge are an empirical fact, and journalists like John King shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that—but, they need to be careful. Calling the public stupid isn’t only inaccurate—it’s counterproductive. Plenty of people are happy to paint themselves as the defenders of the American voter by responding to claims about voter ignorance with populist indignation. In the end, it’s stupid to call voters dumb, but it’s ignorant to claim they’re well-informed. 

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