Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels is one of the nation's leading scholars of political knowledge and ignorance. In this LA Times op ed, he summarizes some of the reasons why widespread political ignorance is a serious problem. He also ably summarizes the flaws of "retrospective voting," an information shortcut that many argue helps poorly informed voters make good decisions simply by rewarding or punishing incumbents for events that happened during their term in office:
Voters' strong tendency to reward incumbents for peace and prosperity and punish them for bad times looks at first glance like a promising mechanism of political accountability, because it does not require detailed knowledge of issues and policy platforms. As political scientist Morris Fiorina has noted, even uninformed citizens "typically have one comparatively hard bit of data: They know what life has been like during the incumbent's administration."
Unfortunately, "rational" rewarding and punishing of incumbents turns out to be much harder than it seems, as my Princeton colleague, Christopher Achen, and I have found. Voters often misperceive what life has been like during the incumbent's administration. They are inordinately focused on the here and now, mostly ignoring how things have gone earlier in the incumbent's term. And they have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country's well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not.
This election year, an economic downturn turned into an economic crisis with the dramatic meltdown of major financial institutions. John McCain will be punished at the polls as a result. Whether the current economic distress is really President Bush's fault, much less McCain's, is largely beside the point.
I provide a more detailed critique of retrospective voting in this 2004 paper. Bartels' excellent article with Christopher Achen (referenced in his op ed) is available here. And here is a somewhat expanded version of Bartels' LA Times op ed, published in the Wilson Quarterly.
Bartels and I are quite far apart ideologically (he is a liberal Democrat). But it is interesting that we have very similar views about the danger posed by widespread political ignorance and irrationality.