Political Ignorance and the 2008 Election:

The conservative "How Obama Got Elected" website has put up survey data from polls conducted by Zogby and Wilson Research that show extensive political ignorance among Obama votes (HT: my colleague Lloyd Cohen). For example, some 57% (in the Zogby poll) to 59% (Wilson poll) of Obama voters didn't known that the Democrats controlled Congress at the time of the election. By contrast, 63% of McCain supporters got this question right in the Wilson survey (Zogby did not conduct a separate survey of McCain supporters on this issue). Similarly, the Zogby results showed that the vast majority of Obama voters were unaware of various negatives about Obama and vice presidential nominee Joe Biden; McCain voters scored better on these questions. Ignorance about Democratic control of Congress is particularly important, because understanding of that fact might have led voters conclude that the Democrats shared at least some responsibility for the financial crisis and other recent policy failures. This information might not have prevented them from putting Obama in the White House; but it could well have led them to forego giving the Democrats greatly expanded congressional majorities.

The "How Obama Got Elected" authors argue that this shows that political ignorance was a major factor in Obama's victory. To an extent, it probably was. However, Democrats can easily point to comparable ignorance by Republican voters. For example, in 2004, a high proportion of Bush voters believed that large-scale WMD caches or programs had been found in Iraq, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

More generally, it is not surprising that voters on both sides are often ignorant about a wide range of issues. As I have often pointed out in my scholarship (e.g. here), it is in fact rational for most voters to be ignorant about politics because of the very low probability that any individual vote will change electoral outcomes. In addition, voters have little incentive to do an unbiased evaluation of the information they do have. As a result, "political fans" often act like sports fans, overvaluing information that supports their preferred "team" and ignoring or downplaying anything that makes the team look bad. Such bias may explain why Obama voters in the Wilson survey were less likely to know information that reflected badly on the Democrats, whereas McCain voters had the opposite bias (e.g. - a smaller percentage of McCain voters than Obama voters knew that McCain had been implicated in the Keating Five scandal). As the "How Obama Got Elected" site notes, "in general, the voters did universally worse on questions where the negative information was about their candidate."

Of course, voters were not ignorant across the board:

Ninety-four percent of Obama voters correctly identified Palin as the candidate with a pregnant teenage daughter, 86% correctly identified Palin as the candidate associated with a $150,000 wardrobe purchased by her political party, and 81% chose McCain as the candidate who was unable to identify the number of houses he owned. When asked which candidate said they could "see Russia from their house," 87% chose Palin, although the quote actually is attributed to Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey during her portrayal of Palin during the campaign. An answer of "none" or "Palin" was counted as a correct answer on the test, given that the statement was associated with a characterization of Palin.

Conservatives will no doubt argue that these Palin negatives stuck in the voters' minds because of media bias. That may be true to some extent. But it is probably more likely that they became well known because they were "human interest" stories that could grab the attention of ordinary voters who find complex policy issues boring. There is a long history of polling data showing higher knowledge levels about human interest stories than policy stories. For example, two of the most widely known facts about the first President Bush was that he hated broccoli and owned a dog named Millie.

Widespread political ignorance and bias give partisans plenty of data that demonstrates' the ignorance of their opponents' voters. Unfortunately, they tend to ignore the reality that their own side's voters are usually just as bad.

The true lesson of political knowledge polls is not that either Democrats or Republicans are uniquely ignorant, but that we should reduce the power of government. That way, fewer important decisions will be made under the influence of electoral processes where ignorance, bias, and irrationality play such an enormous role.

UPDATE: Some commenters point to this post by Nate Silver as supposedly discrediting the Zogby results. I don't think it does. Silver says nothing that disproves the results themselves; he merely claims that the poll was commissioned by John Ziegler, a conservative political activist with supposedly nefarious motives (conducting a "push poll" to prejudice survey respondents against Obama). The claim that the survey was a "push poll" is dubious because, as Zogby points outs, it was conducted after the election.

But even if Ziegler's motives were exactly as as Silver suggests, that in no way proves that the poll is methodologically flawed. In particular, Silver doesn't even mention what I think is the single most striking finding: that the vast majority of Obama supporters didn't know which party controls Congress. Silver does suggest that some of the other questions are factually inaccurate, but provides no proof of that. I agree that a few are probably poorly worded; but I don't think I need to prove that every question on the survey is methodologically sound to show that the overall results of the poll demonstrate a fairly high (though predictable) level of political ignorance.