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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Uninformed Bloc

by Scott Winship
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve failed to keep the faith. I’ve made a mockery of the “daily” in “Daily Strategist”. I’ve been out lollygagging, making the rounds of the D.C. cocktail circuit. But lemme explain. There was a much needed trip to Boston (shout out to T.L., J.H., and C.W. — um, holla atcha boy?) and Maine. Not “summer home” Maine either – my blue-collar, limited-internet-access hometown (shout out Lawrence Bulldogs). And there’s this magazine that I’m supposed to be running. And do we have some great stuff planned for the next few months. That’s not a question, I mean we do have some great stuff planned.
But for now, let me just draw your attention to a piece by Stephen Earl Bennett in a fairly new publication called Public Opinion Pros [subscr.]. POP is an online magazine aimed at disseminating public opinion research. It published the essay by Amy Gershkoff that I summarized way back when. Following my own particular obsessions, I was drawn to the Bennett article, which examines the extent of political knowledge among voters.
The whole point of polling is to obtain an accurate picture of the state of public opinion and preferences, but if voters are generally uninformed, then we might hesitate to craft public policies around those preferences. Furthermore, uninformed voters might be vulnerable to deceptive framing of policy debates, such that their preferences may be quite malleable, which of course renders polling data problematic as a guide to strategy. The textbook example illustrating both points is the majoritarian belief that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, which greatly facilitated the Administration’s goal of invading Iraq and overthrowing Hussein.
So, to put it in provocative terms, how ignorant is the electorate? Bennett found that nearly one-third of adults were unaware that the Republican Party is more conservative than the Democratic Party. And lest the reader think that this is an expression of cynicism rather than a lack of knowledge, Bennett found that whether or not respondents knew there were major differences between the two parties was associated with the amount of knowledge they had of major politicians and the parties but not with their levels of governmental trust.
Only one in ten adults knew who Denny Hastert is. Out of eight similar questions about politicians and the two parties, the average adult got just 4.5 right. One-third of adults said they follow politics “hardly at all” or “only now and then”.
Bennett uses a Gallup question asking which party controls the House and Senate to argue that political knowledge has only slightly declined since the mid-1940s. But it has become more associated with age – through the 1970s, young people were just as well informed as older Americans, but today’s twenty-somethings know less than their elders about politics and government. Bennett attributes this change to the decline in newspaper readership and in the influence of political parties.
Finally, in an intriguing finding, Bennett shows that consistency in positions taken across issue areas increases as political knowledge increases. Those who have little knowledge tend to have unconventional combinations of issue positions. If it is also the case that those with little political knowledge are less consistent in their positions on individual issues over time than other people are, then the result might be a sizeable constituency for demagoguery and misdirection. Bennett’s results imply that that bloc would be as large as one-third of the population. It seems important to separate these people out, to the extent possible, when analyzing characteristics of the electorate by, say, party or ideology. And it would be nice to know more about the positions they take on issues and the candidates they support. A Daily Strategist project for another day….
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

31 comments on “The Uninformed Bloc

  1. janinsanfran on

    I’ve spent most of the last 20 years teaching folks how to activate unlikely voters. This study totally tracks with my experience. There is a large segment of the population that knows nothing whatever about the politics of their country. They experience governance as akin to the weather — it just happens to them.
    Interestingly, one of the things they are smart about is that they often refuse to try to assert views on things they know nothing about. So they really don’t know if we should go to war, for instance. But they know if a candidate feels authentic to them, so if they vote, they vote on the form of knowledge they have developed — the area in which they do have some smarts.
    We, the political class, try to offer them information in the arena in which they operate. This is not necesarily good for governance.

  2. Chris Glaze on

    it looks like all the data on knowledge of party differences came from ANES.
    is the trend over time, and if you go to the bottom, you can look at demographic breakdown within each response.
    breakdown helps verify the association b/w being uneducated/poor and thinking Dems are more conservative. *however*, if you go here
    you can find same type of data on wide range of questions. i see similar demographic patterns among, people who vote for Dems, and people who did not turn out in 04, both more likely to be poor and uneducated as well. if you go here, you can run crosstabs by response. looks to me that Kerry won those who see no differences by a 17-pt margin. among those who think Dems are more conservative, Kerry won by 40 pts.
    the data do not support the claim that Repubs have been winning by manipulating the uninformed bloc. could be they manipulated some of them, but i suspect they manipulate many who are quite involved in politics as well.

  3. Meteor on

    I just read down through a list of contributors of $500 or more to the political candidates in our local 2006 elections. While uninformed voters are certainly a concern, “informed” and monitarily motivated contributors are certainly no assurance of good government. I guess it comes down to what the meaning of “informed” happens to be.

  4. DrBB on

    Hm. One third are totally ignorant when it comes to politics? Funny–it tracks pretty well with W’s bedrock support numbers.
    I’m just saying.

  5. OCPatriot on

    Any group that has bought into the belief that Iraq had some connection with the downing of the twin towers can easily be said to be ignorant, and the polls tell us that a significant number of people believe just that. Somewhere I read that there were only eight individuals in the FBI who could speak Arabic of any kind before 9/11, and one of them tried to get information from the CIA, but couldn’t, that might have stopped 9/11; this person died in one of the towers; he became Head of Security for the World Trade Center. That’s still another kind of ignorance, bred of lack of knowledge. Our President is extremely ignorant; facts don’t mean much to him and he mangles them regularly. So, yes, please accept that much of the American public is ignorant. The Nazi propaganda machine knew very well that lies, when repeated often enough, are believed by those who are subjected to them; so does Mr. Rove. So what’s there to it that surprises anybody? I seem to have heard some obscure showman say: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” For those who care about this, wringing one’s hands will not do it; you have to take action to change the situation through a change in the Administration and schools that teach more truth.

  6. global yokel on

    Actually, I think a pretty good case can be made that in fact the Democratic Party is more conservative than the GOP. The present incarnation of the GOP has utterly abandoned traditional conservative principles.
    The media have done us all great disservice by continuing to refer to radical wingnuttery as ‘conservatism.’

  7. rdf on

    Those who work on campaigns are well aware of these facts. That’s why the big concentration on TV ads during political races. This is the only way to reach the 5% of “undecideds”. The reason they haven’t decided is because they haven’t been paying attention. Thus we see ads short on facts and long on appeals to emotion.
    You could say that, essentially all the money spent on running for office is to reach this group. In general the rest of the voting public is close to 50-50 in party affiliation (this includes the so-called independents).
    I don’t think there is any way to fix this currently, which shows why money has corrupted the electoral process. It is expensive to reach that 5%.

  8. Mushuweasel on

    A friend of mine, a few days after the last attempt to nuke the estate tax, told me
    him: “If you’ve got an inheritance coming, you’d better tell them to hurry.’
    me: “Uh, why?”
    him: “They’re gonna start taxing inheritance…”
    me: “Uh…”
    I proceeded to explain the dynamics involved and exactly what was being debated. He eventually came around to “Whoa, that’s screwed up..”
    Another time someone tried to convince me that Democrats had been blocking increasing the minimum wage. That nut took a little longer to crack, but it happened.
    I hold out faith. They can be taught. But we’ve all gotta break through the “Don’t talk about politics” barrier.

  9. donkeykong on

    I think you will find that most people don’t know physics either.
    Why are you allowed to delegate your physics decisions to experts and are totally suprised that voters do the same thing?
    delegating attention and being stupid are VERY different things.

  10. Scott on

    Note that the editor of POP gave me a link to the Bennett piece that TDS readers can use to access it. I’ve changed the link in the post to the new one.

  11. Mori Dinauer on

    The POP piece is subscription only so I can’t verify this, but the summary of the argument appears to be identical to that first made by Philip Converse in 1964, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” which was then greatly expanded on in 1984 by political scientist John Zaller in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. In short, those who have a high level of political awareness and knowledge (in Converse’s words, “ideological constraint”) are least likely to change their opinions on the basis of new, contradictory information. At the other end of the spectrum, those with little or no ideological guidance are less likely to be convinced because they are essentially out of the conversation (the non-voting, “apathetic” public). It is those in the middle whose opinions are malleable, which is why politicians race to the middle in a general election (the base is already mobilized, the uninformed aren’t going to vote anyway). I’m curious if the POP article has new insights into this phenomenon.

  12. Robert Asher on

    I have been a college teacher for 39 years. About 1/3 of my students really get the point about the history I teach. In the absence of real interest in the subject matter and given the limited attention span of the bottom two-thirds of my students, these results are not surprising. This is why institutions that mobilize voters by appealing to their gut ideas, fears, and needs are so critical. In the past, Democratic labor unions, although never 100% successful in getting members to vote Democratic, tried to educate members. And in the past Democratic candidates favored enough legislation that helped workers to make the pro-Democratic argument plausible in a palpable way. Today the Dems offer NOTHING that will help US labor deal with the pressures of international competition. The majority of Dems backed NAFTA, which prevented a fair playing field since the provisions for enforcing requirements for allowing unions and for enforcing anti-pollution laws were totally ineffective, which the DLC Democrats knew. But given the increased demand by business contributors for across-the-board ideological conformity as the price for their money, it is not surprising that the Democrats are so conservative. I truly think we are back to the era of the late nineteenth century, the era of tweedle dee and tweedle dum. Hopefully this situation will be altered in the future. But note that historically unions organized when the number of industrial jobs in the U S were growing and/or were expected to grow. This is not the projection for the future. So a new politics of mass mobilization will likely be led by institutions that are not now very active. Institutions representing the unemployed, the elderly who are gouged by government policies, etc. My concern about such institutions is that it is not likely they will be as well organized and effective as unions were in the years from 1900 to 1975. Why? Because the clientele of the “new” institutions will lack the resources that employed workers had. One thing is clear: the Democratic Party of today is totally incapable of taking a leadership role like the New Deal Democratic Party and the party of LBJ took. Current Democratic candidates do not educate the public on the issues. And they offer no solutions to the underlying problems facing increasing numbers of Americans.

  13. east LA on

    –Not only are people ignorant, but even when they aren’t, they filter their facts to suit their world view, as a recent study shows–
    Anyone have a reference for this? I’d like to see it. and…
    Plato was right!
    Let us create the “Philosopher King” party! 1st order of busin- wait a second. Who’s Plato? What’s a philsopher. Aww, forget it. Let’s just have a party! Budweiser is the King of beers!

  14. peter from new york on

    I think the points about ignorance and not voting are fair enough (highly correlated, but certainly not 100%), but I think if you actually parse the data out further, the level of ignorance is enough to cause the less-ignorant among us to despair. Not only are people ignorant, but even when they aren’t, they filter their facts to suit their world view, as a recent study shows. So as they emerge out of ignorance and develop strong ideas about what parties are (or aren’t), their positions harden and they graduate from ignorance and into willful ignorance of facts. The net result is the now recognized fact that deciding who you vote for and what you believe in are not nearly as rational as we progressives want to believe, but rather a representation of all sorts of internal constructs we have come to believe. Ergo, Republicans fixate on Clinton because he shook their world view and threatened them enormously. Even after the multiple cascading fiascos of the last six years, there is a large subset of this country that will say with a straight face that what Clinton did with Monica was worse. This is also well-covered in Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, where the middle class of that once-progressive state abandoned the Democrats in an emotional stampede over a small number of push-button issues. The hit to their wallets and lifestyle as a result has been palpable, but no matter. Their world view could not accept the other party any more.
    We have to acknowledge what Rove has known for a decade. This combat for the soul of the nation is a lizard-brain emotional one, and not one about great ideas. And that war is well-fought by lizard-instinct Republicans.

  15. Matt Brown on

    Interesting. These results highlight the importance of not governing based on polls. As do the recent Harris + other polls that show a majority of Americans believe in mythical Saddam and Al Qaeda/Sept 11 connections.
    I think they also show that one of the rolls of a political leader is to educate the people. For example, the polling shows that roughly 50% of Americans approve of the NSA domestic spying program. The Democrats are missing an opportunity to stand firm behind Feingold and educate the people about why the illegal methodology of domestic spying is wrong etc. The public can sense that an opposition’s weakness in standing up for core principles (being scared by unclear polls)translates to weakness in governing. Conversely, the public can sense the strength in confidently standing up for principles and making an effort to explain their position.
    In general, regarding why people are uninformed, I think that there is a need for some type of broadbased education system (online?) where people can come to get a rudimentary (and nonbiased) understanding of the basic stuff they need to know how to properly cast their votes.

  16. joe on

    Nevada story (true)…
    Guy named Bob Beers runs for governor this year. Lots of $ spent getting his name out…he comes in second. Guy named Bob Beers runs for Assembly District 21 in Nevada and wins against 5 other candidates, 1 who was the Party’s “tool” -he Beers didn’t even campaign. How stupid/”ill informed” are the voters? Pretty stupid.

  17. Samuel Knight on

    Great post. But rather than decrying the state of ignorance – we poltical junkies need to remember that this has huge implications on how to run campaigns.
    The first piece of advice from this realization is ‘sell it like a product’ to those who don’t follow politics. The corrolary to that supports Markos and other’s contentions that candidates should never use political consultants for advertising, because they don’t know how to sell products. Go with the pros.
    But there is a second implication. Most adults do know one of two major facts about politics. And the GOP has plainly shown that a political party can get a “fact” or sorta-fact out there.
    So the democrats as a party need to think what facts they want to get out there. If they want to fight a campaign based on dealing with reality, then they need to find out what are the major pieces of reality that they want out there. And don’t be afraid of being repititious.
    Third, this reinforces the notion that the party also must act a bit tougher. The general feeling about wimpy democrats is the killer, not actual positions. And you can’t defeat this by policy positions, you can only seem assertive by being assertive.

  18. Stuart Eugene Thiel on

    Last week I saw poll results that an unhealthy number of Americans — I think 5-6% — could not identify the month and/or day of the 9/11 attacks. We should be grateful that they also don’t know who Denny Hastert is. Can we keep them from voting?

  19. don eremin on

    good points.
    Suggestion…All must read Alexander Stille’s new biography of Silvio Berlusconi (The Sack of Rome)..especially how Berlusconi’s election campaigns focussed successfully on uninformed parts of the electorate.
    Media strategies illustrations of how successful campaigns work. Much better analysis than I have seen in the U.S. press.

  20. yeselson on

    American ignorance extends beyond the political realm, to an almost autistic level of self-absorbtion and information aversion. Most disgruntled Frankfurt type lefties and the waning numbers of conservatives who haven’t drunk the faux populist koolaid that has carried them to power assume that, sure, Americans hold moronic, uninformed views about politics because they are obsessed with the trivialities of popular culture. But it turns out that most people don’t even know much about Hollywood and television either. A Pew poll that came out last week found that only 35% of Americans know who Katie Couric is, and only 59% of our fellow citizens can identify Mel Gibson, even after the 24/7 publicity he received over his recent drunken tirade. A similar poll in 1996 found that 40% of Americans did not who Al Gore was, after he had been Vice President for four years.
    As Mencken said, you’ll never go broke underestimating the stupidity of the American people.

  21. John Clavis on

    Wow, 1/3 of the population. Funny, John Dean says that about 1/3 of the American population seem to be “authoritarian conservatives” who fall for the Bush/Rove PR strategies, and the President’s popularity has consistently hovered around 33%.
    What are the odds?
    Thanks for a great piece.

  22. Mark Paul on

    What percentage of that one-third of adults who don’t know which is the conservative party actually trouble themselves to vote?
    In any case, speechwriters and copywriters should note this study very carefully. Democrats tend to fall into jargon and clichés that are meaningful only to the well-informed. Look at an Obama speech and you’ll see he talks about voters’ daily lives, not the world as experienced through news reports.

  23. T.Raleigh Fisher on

    “..then the result might be a sizeable constituency for demagoguery and misdirection. Bennett’s results imply that that bloc would be as large as one-third of the population.”
    If this is the case, then it would be wise to run two campaigns: one campaign to remind your base that you are on their side, and a second campaign to sway the uninformed with good feelings, warmth, happiness, deception, demogoguery and misdirection. Put 80% of your campaign funds into the second category, and treat it like the latest Coca-Cola marketing campaign against Pepsi, which is to say, meaningless good fun, smug self-indulgence, and attacking the opponent at every opportunity.
    Republicans did this perfectly last two elections. Their base – big business and big business people – knew exactly of the Republicans’ true agenda. Make the rich richer, less regulated, less accountable, and lock in their advantages. No need to convince their base of that notion, so Republicans dedicated at least 80% of their campaign to misdirecting the uninformed third of Americans, a group that lost much more than they ever gained in the last six years.
    While it’s fun for me to be part of big business, we sure set back the common-good by about 50 years, and shattered any illusion of the American Dream for most Americans and the world.

  24. John on

    If we decry the ignorance of the electorate, let’s remember that it’s only fair. Our government stopped caring about us long ago, too. *There’s* a correlation I’d like to see mapped by the polls.
    Our elected officials move in elevated circles far out of our reach, and so it no longer pays the individual to petition them.

  25. A political scientist on

    The finding that people who are more knowledgeable about politics are also more “consistent” in their beliefs about politics is something that’s well known in the field of political science. We call it ideological “constraint” — the idea being that people who hold certain sets of ideas are “constrained” to also hold certain other ideas.
    But here’s the thing. Suppose you’re able to identify that bloc of (say) 30% of the people whose beliefs are inconsistent. Good luck then persuading or mobilizing them. The same thing that makes these people report atypical sets of beliefs — namely, paying hardly any attention to politics — also makes them the toughest group of people to get through to as part of an organized campaign.

  26. Mike M. on

    I don’t know how to feel about this. Only one third of adults spend a lot of time thinking about politics… is that good or bad? Maybe not enough adults spend time thinking about art, either. The less informed take unconventional stances over multiple issues… does that mean they’re easy to manipulate or that the slates of issues that those of us who are politically addicted adhere to just don’t appeal? A lot of people don’t know who Denny Hastert is? I mean, seriously, people should know because of the power he wields but better known people have done much more to earn their fame,

  27. Appletini on

    Interesting posting. This sort of article and observation about the electorate matters more, I think, when we can say something about the *voting behavior* of the uninformed bloc…if the same uninformed 1/3 of the population does not vote anyway, does it all come out in the wash? Or would that only be the case if that 1/3 also opted out of polling and therefore their policy preferences (if we can call them that) never affect the policy process because politicians have no incentive to respond to [distorted] polls or the actual voters?


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