Archive | Polls

My Response to Jeffrey Friedman’s Critique of Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has now posted my response to political theorist Jeffrey Friedman’s insightful criticism of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

In his critique of my book, Jeffrey Friedman continues his longstanding efforts to show that most political ignorance is inadvertent rather than rational. In his view, voters are ignorant because they believe our society “is a mighty simple place” and “think they have information adequate to [the] task.” They simply don’t realize there is lots of other information out there that could help them make better decisions.

Friedman is a top-notch political theorist who has made valuable contributions to the literature on political knowledge… But on this point, I think he is barking up the wrong tree… Moreover, the mistake is of more than theoretical importance. Inadvertent ignorance has very different implications for political theory than rational ignorance….

Inadvertent error might explain why voters ignore highly abstruse (though potentially relevant) bodies of knowledge. But it cannot account for widespread ignorance of very basic facts about politics and public policy. For example…., two-thirds of the public in 2010 did not know that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year, even though most said that the economy was the single most important issue in the election. Similarly, most had little if any understanding of the Obama health care plan, another major issue. If you think the economy or the president’s health care plan is the biggest issue on the public agenda, it isn’t rocket science to figure out that these basic facts are highly relevant. Yet the majority of the public is often ignorant of such basics….

The inadvertence theory also cannot explain why political knowledge levels have remained largely stagnant for decades, despite massive increases in


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My Response to Sean Trende’s Commentary on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende’s thoughtful commentary on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.

Here is an excerpt:

Sean offers three important criticisms of the argument advanced in Democracy and Political Ignorance: that voters know enough to make good decisions on really important issues, that they can make good choices between the two options on offer in major elections, and that the historical success of American democracy suggests that political ignorance may not be such a serious problem. Each of these points has some merit. But each is overstated. Political ignorance does not prevent voters from making good decisions in some important situations. But it does make the performance of democracy a lot worse than it would be otherwise….

Sean cites the 2010 midterm election as one where the voters were well-informed about big issues. According to the majority of Americans at the time, the most important issue was the state of the economy. Yet preelection polls showed that 67% of voters did not even realize that the economy had grown rather than shrunk during the previous year. The majority also did not know the basics of the 2009 stimulus bill, the most important policy adopted by the Obama administration to try to promote economic recovery. Moreover, a plurality believed that the 2008 bailout of major banks enacted to try to contain the financial crisis and recession that occurred that year – had been enacted under Obama rather than under President George W. Bush (only 34% knew the correct answer)….

This kind of ignorance about major issues was far from unique to 2010. There was comparable ignorance in numerous other elections, some of which I discuss in detail in the book….

In addition, ignorance sometimes


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My Forbes Column on Political Ignorance and the Government Shutdown

The Forbes website recently published an op ed I wrote on public ignorance about the issues involved in the government shutdown. Here is an excerpt:

As a government shutdown begins, much of the public knows very little about the issues behind it: Obamacare and the future of the federal budget. An August Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 44% do not even realize that Obamacare is still the law. Kaiser’s June poll found that 33% say they have heard “nothing at all” about the controversial insurance exchanges that are a central element of the law, and 34% “only a little.”

When it comes to the budget, numerous polls show that voters grossly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while greatly overestimating the amount spent on foreign aid….

Public opinion will probably play a key role in determining the outcome of the shutdown battle. Both parties want to attract public support and focus voters’ frustration on their opponents. But the voters politicians seek to win over are often very ill-informed.

Widespread political ignorance isn’t limited to spending and health care. It cuts across many other issues, and even the basic structure of government….

There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. Providing more information is unlikely to work, since most people fail to assimilate the information that is already available. But we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government. When people “vote with their feet” in the private sector or in choosing what state or local government they want to live in, they have much better incentives to acquire information and use it rationally than when they vote at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, public ignorance about these issues is just the tip of a larger [...]

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New Pew Poll Gives Obama a Three Point Lead

In my last post, I said that Obama should be favored to win the election, and suggested he has roughly a 65-70 percent chance of winning. My estimate of Romney’s chances was based in large part on his relatively strong showing in national polls, which still had him even with Obama late last week. Today, however, the Pew Research Center came out with a new poll giving Obama 3 point lead nationally, among likely voters.

Obama’s lead in this poll is actually slightly greater than the survey’s margin of error (2.2 percent). And Pew is one of the best polling firms in the business. In combination with the other evidence, such as the battleground state polls, I think this gives Obama an even higher probability of winning than I suggested yesterday, perhaps 80% or even more.

This is still going to be a close election, and will still be one of the rare instances where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion well before election day. But at this point, it’s looking more like 2004 (a close election where one side nonetheless has a clear edge) than 2000 (close to dead even). The polls are still close enough that Romney has a shot, especially if you buy claims that the pollsters’ turnout models are overestimating the number of Democrats who will vote. But his chances are much weaker than it seemed as recently as a week ago. A Romney victory is possible, but at this point would be a pretty substantial upset.

If Obama does win a narrow victory, it’s possible that the effect of the hurricane will be responsible for pushing him over the edge. But I think it’s at least equally likely that things have just reverted to the outcome that could be predicted based on the [...]

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Overconfident Pundits Predicting Victory for Their Side

Given the extreme closeness of both the national and battleground state polls, one would think that serious political commentators would avoid making bold predictions about the outcome of the presidential race. After all, an overconfident pundit who turns out to be wrong will have egg on their face in just a few days. This is especially true in a situation where state polls and national polls seem to be in tension with each other.

Yet one of the striking things about recent election commentary is that most conservative Republicans are confidently predicting a Romney victory, while liberal Democrats seem equally convinced that Obama is sure to win. Karl Rove, for example, is predicting a clear Romney win. Liberals such as Joan Walsh and Mark Mellman are just as confident that Romney is doomed.

What explains such seemingly irrational overconfidence? One possibility is that these people are simply engaging in biased wishful thinking. Like sports fans, committed political partisans tend to overvalue evidence that reflects favorably on their preferred “team” and ignore or downplay anything that cuts the other way. But another factor may be the desire to create a “bandwagon effect” by convincing as many people as possible that their candidate will win. As I explained here, a small number of swing voters will tend to gravitate to the side that looks like it’s going to win. In a close election, they could make a decisive difference. If the Roves and Mellmans of the world can persuade the public that their guy has the momentum and is likely to win, it could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A recent Gallup poll shows that 54 percent of the public believe that Obama will win, compared to only 34 percent who predict that Romney will prevail. [...]

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Do Surveys Overestimate Political Ignorance?

In a recent Language Log post, Mark Liberman argues that surveys overestimate the extent of political ignorance. Unfortunately, his evidence is far from compelling.

He notes a few examples where scholars or reporters simply misstated the results of a particular survey. That surely happens. But it doesn’t account for more than a small fraction of the survey evidence finding widespread political ignorance.

Liberman also cites evidence that surveys based on “open-ended” questions sometimes overestimate ignorance because the coders are given bad instructions. An open-ended survey is one where the respondent is asked a question (e.g. – “Who is the Chief Justice of the United States”), and then must give an answer that he comes up with on his own, instead of choosing from a pre-set range of choices, as with a multiple choice question.

Open-ended questions do indeed have their flaws. But extensive political ignorance shows up in multiple-choice surveys too. For example, multiple choice surveys showed that only about 32% of the public knew that Paul Ryan was a member of the House of Representatives. These polls were taken before he was nominated for the vice presidency but after he had been a major figure in American politics for several years. Other multiple choice questions reveal massive ignorance about the distribution of federal spending. Back in 2009, a multiple-choice survey found that only 24% knew that “cap and trade” is an environmental program, even though it had just passed the House of Representatives (I cite the data in this article). And there’s many other examples where those came from.

Moreover, if open-ended survey items overstate ignorance, multiple-choice questions often understate it, because ignorant people will sometimes get the right answer by guessing. In an age of standardized testing, many people are used to the idea [...]

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Obama’s Lead in the Polls is Not a Historical Anomaly

Ever since Obama established a narrow but clear edge in the polls after the Democratic Convention, conservative commentators such as Niall Ferguson, Andrew McCarthy, John Hinderaker, and Peter Robinson have claimed that this is an unusual historical anomaly explicable only by Romney’s poor campaign strategy or lack of personal appeal, or by some sort of transformation of the electorate in a left-wing direction. They assume, as Hinderaker puts it, that “this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans” because of the poor state of the economy.

In reality, however, standard economic models of presidential election outcomes all point to a close race, for reasons I explained in this post. Larry Sabato’s recent summary of the predictions of 13 standard election models relying primarily on economic variables also points to a close race with a small edge to Obama. On average, the models predict that he will get 50.2% of the two-party vote. A crude summary of the reasons why the models come out this way is that 1) there has been some improvement in economic conditions since 2008, even if a modest one and 2) things were pretty bad in 2008 to begin with, which leads some swing voters to blame Bush and the GOP for the slow pace of the recovery as much or more than Obama and the Democrats.

Some of the models also take account of foreign policy events. While one can certainly make a case against Obama’s foreign policy, he has not presided over a large and obvious failure that can clearly be laid at his door in a way that swing voters – most of whom have very low levels of political knowledge – can readily grasp.

It’s worth noting that these models also do not account for any boost [...]

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The Arab Spring and the Video Riots

Ever since the Arab Spring began, I have been concerned that it could ultimately result in the establishment of Islamist regimes as bad or worse than the more secular dictatorships they replaced. One of the reasons for that fear is that public opinion in many Arab nations is highly illiberal and intolerant. As a result, free elections could result in victories for authoritarian and repressive radical Islamists, as has indeed happened in Egypt. The new Islamist Egyptian President has already imposed media censorship and harrassment that activists consider to be worse than Mubarak’s was.

Unfortunately, the recent outbreak of violent riots in many Middle Eastern nations in response to an insignificant anti-Muslim Youtube video is a further indication of the problem. With the important exception of Libya, most Arab and Muslim governments have issued vitriolic condemnations of the video while either ignoring or only mildly criticizing the violent response to it.

In the absence of systematic polling data, it is too early to say what percentage of the population in these countries agrees that violent rioting is a justified response to “blasphemous” speech. But the tepid reaction of Arab governments to the violence suggests that such support is at least relatively common, even if not the view of a majority. And in Egypt, site of some of the worst violence, previous survey data shows that violent religious intolerance does enjoy majority support. For example, a 2010 Pew survey found that 84% of Egyptians believe that Muslims who convert to another religion should be executed.

It would be a mistake to say that such intolerance and illiberalism are an inevitable attribute of Islam. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a centuries-old religion with many different variants, some of them more liberal and tolerant than others. I [...]

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Public Ignorance About Paul Ryan

Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have a helpful post summarizing survey data showing that most of the public knows little or nothing about newly selected GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan:

A series of polls done by YouGov for the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project suggests that most people have never heard of Paul Ryan before today. In several polls since April 28, YouGov has asked a representative sample of 1,000 people if they have heard of Ryan and to rate him in terms of favorability. This gives us a large sample on which to base this analysis.

Over the last several months, roughly 43% of Americans report that they have never heard of Paul Ryan. In mid-July, 52% could not even make a guess as to whether Ryan was a member of the House, the Senate, was Secretary of State, or was a Governor (32% got it right). Republicans are more likely to know that Ryan was a member of the House—42% of Republicans knew this, compared to 29% of Democrats and 34% of independents.

The above polls may actually understate the true degree of ignorance about Ryan. Studies show that some people don’t like to admit to pollsters that they don’t know something; if presented with a multiple choice question like the one about Ryan’s office, some ignorant respondents will guess rather than choose “don’t know.” In this case, random guessers had a 25% chance of getting the question right.

The degree of ignorance about Ryan is striking. Unlike Sarah Palin in 2008, Ryan is not a relative unknown catapulted onto the national scene for the first time by getting a VP nomination. He’s been a major figure in national politics for several years now, and is the GOP’s leading spokesman on budgetary and economic issues. That [...]

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Public opinion about the National Rifle Association

In April, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the National Rifle Association was viewed favorably by 68% of Americans, and unfavorably by 32%. Unlike most polls, the Reuters poll apparently did not allow “unsure” or “undecided” as a choice. In each of the demographics which the poll provided–Republicans, Democrats, independents, whites, and blacks–the NRA was viewed favorably by at least 55%.

A 2005 Gallup Poll had found a 60/34 favorable/unfavorable view of the NRA. Previous Gallup results were 52/39 (May 2000), 51/39 (April 2000), 51/40 (April 1999, right after the Columbine High School murders), 42/51 (June 1995), and 55/32 (March 1993).

It is interesting to compare the NRA’s ratings with support for handgun control.  Since 1959, Gallup has been asking “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?” There have been some small changes in wording over the years, and the question is not a perfect test of support for handgun prohibition; some respondents might interpret “other authorized persons” simply as support for the licensing for handgun owners. However, the Gallup question is the closest thing there is to a 50-year gauge for sentiment for banning handguns.

In October 2011, Gallup found that 26% of Americans (a record low) thought that there should be such a law, and 73% did not. The 26/73 anti-/pro-handgun split is fairly close to the 32/68% anti-/pro-NRA split. After Columbine, 38% wanted the anti-handgun law, and 40% disapproved of NRA.

Likewise, Gallup in May 1993 found 54% in against the proposed law, and 55% approval for NRA.

Thus, generally speaking, over the last two decades, Americans who favor handgun prohibition appear to have accurately identified the NRA as a major obstacle to their wishes, and have viewed the NRA unfavorably. Americans who oppose handgun prohibition have viewed the NRA favorably [...]

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The Wall Street Journal on Public Ignorance About Federal Spending

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on widespread public ignorance about federal spending [HT: Andrew Varcoe]:

Many Americans have strong opinions about policy issues shaping the presidential campaign, from immigration to Social Security. But their grasp of numbers that underlie those issues can be tenuous.

Americans vastly overestimate the percentage of fellow residents who are foreign-born, by more than a factor of two, and the percentage who are in the country illegally, by a factor of six or seven. They overestimate spending on foreign aid by a factor of 25, according to a 2010 survey. And more than two-thirds of those who responded to a 2010 Zogby online poll underestimated the part of the federal budget that goes to Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid.

“It’s pretty apparent that Americans routinely don’t know objective facts about the government,” says Joshua Clinton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Americans’ numerical misapprehension can be traced to a range of factors, including where they live, the news they consume, the political rhetoric they hear and even the challenges of numbers themselves. And it isn’t even clear how much this matters: Telling people the right numbers often doesn’t change their views.

These are not new findings. I wrote about earlier survey data with similar results here and here. Despite the growing fiscal crisis that has emerged over the last few years, most of the public knows very little about federal spending.

The article suggests that this ignorance may not matter much because the majority of survey respondents don’t change their minds about policy priorities even when presented with correct information. It is certainly true that people are slow to change their minds about political issues, often even rejecting outright any data that conflicts with their preexisting views. In general, however, [...]

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The Gender Gap in Interest in Politics

Heather Mac Donald has an interesting column on the widely discussed data showing that some 87% of all Wikipedia contributors are male. She argues persuasively that it’s difficult to attribute the gap to discrimination, since most Wikipedia writers are anonymous, thereby making it virtually impossible for Wikipedia to discriminate against women even if they wanted to.

Wikipedia obviously covers many subjects. But to the extent that the underrepresentation of women there extends to the entries on politics and policy issues, it’s part of a longstanding pattern of lesser interest in such issues among women as compared to men. For example, decades of research show that there is a substantial gender gap in political knowledge, with men especially overrepresented among the 5% of the population who follow politics most closely, as measured by political knowledge levels (a group that is some 80% male). I present some of the relevant data in Part VI of this article, including the figure about the top 5%. As I describe there, the gender gap in political knowledge covers a wide range of issues. There are relatively few exceptions. Similarly, this recent Harris poll shows that 25% of men, but only 10% of women report reading at least one nonfiction book on politics over the last year. As in the case of Wikipedia, it’s hard to attribute these gaps to discrimination. Basic political information of the kind tested by pollsters is easily accessed in many different places, and booksellers would be more than happy to sell more political books to women.

Obviously, it would also be wrong to attribute the gap to “stupidity” on the part of women. Political ignorance is not stupidity. As I have often pointed out in the past, it is actually rational behavior for most citizens, assuming that their [...]

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Political Ignorance and Federal Spending

Although federal spending was a major political issue in the 2010 campaign and for many months before it, this recently released CBS poll [HT: Dan Mitchell] reveals widespread public ignorance about the distribution of spending between various programs. The detailed data reveal that only 23% know that Medicare and Medicaid take up between 20 and 30% of federal spending, and only 15% realize that Social Security takes up between 20 and 30%. Some 48% underestimate the extent of Social Security spending, with a much smaller percentage overstating it. Similarly, only 23% recognize that defense spending takes up between 20% and 30% of the budget. In this case, the most common error is to overestimate the extent of spending (a mistake made by 42%). Defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid, are by far the three largest items in the federal budget. And the vast majority of Americans don’t know how much of the federal budget is spent on them. Even if we count as “correct” answers that are close to the truth (on the grounds that all three programs are right around 20%, so both 10 to 20% and 20 to 30% might potentially be correct), the large majority still doesn’t know the answer in all three cases.

The majority overestimates the percentage of federal spending that goes to foreign aid, welfare, and earmarks. For example, only 9% realize that foreign aid is less than 5% of the federal budget, while 67% believe that it is higher than that, including 48% who believe that the true figure is a whopping 10% or more.

Knowing approximately how much federal spending goes to which program is not enough to have a reasonably informed discussion on spending policy. But it’s probably a necessary prerequisite to doing so. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that the majority [...]

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New Survey Data on Public Attitudes Towards Kelo and Economic Development Takings

Kelo v. City of New London, which ruled that government has the power to forcibly transfer property from one private owner to another in order to promote “economic development,” was one of the most unpopular decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. Polls conducted soon after the decision was issued in 2005 found that over 80% of the public opposed it.

Recent survey data compiled by Stephen Ansolabehere and Nathaniel Persily as part of a general study of public attitudes on constitutional issues sheds new light on public attitudes towards Kelo. The study, which is based on a poll taken in July 2009, finds that the public remains just as strongly opposed to economic development takings as in 2005. But it also indicates considerable public ignorance about the Court’s decision.

Question 215 in the 2009 survey asked respondents the following:

Governments sometimes use the power of eminent domain to acquire a person’s property at a fair market price for other uses. Recently, a local government transferred someone’s property to private developers whose commercial projects could benefit the local economy. Do you think the local government should be able to use eminent domain for this purpose or not?

This wording is quite favorable to the pro-Kelo side. It mentions the rationale for the taking (“benefit [to] the local economy”) and notes that the owners will get a “fair market price.” Respondents who are not experts in this field might believe that the latter actually means a “fair price” that takes account of the full extent of the owners’ losses, even though it only actually means “fair market value,” which is often not enough to fully compensate owners for the loss of “subjective value.” On the other hand, the question doesn’t mention any of the arguments against such [...]

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