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They Know Less Than You Think

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

Two new survey findings -- from Gallup and Fox News -- remind us of a lesson that always bears repeating. Those of us that write and obsess about politics typically over-estimate the degree to which ordinary Americans follow the day-to-day workings of government and politics. It is what Gallup's Frank Newport calls "insider parochialism" in his latest installment of Gallup Guru: "The tendency for those of us who are following the presidential election closely to assume that everyone else is too."

Newport provides an example of how one such controversy -- Rudy Giuliani's stands on "key social and value issues" like gay marriage -- is not yet on the radar screens of most Americans even though political junkies like us examine "every word the former New York City mayor utters" for evidence that "he is ignoring, sticking to, or modifying his historical positions on abortion and same-sex marriage." Newport's central point:

[O]ur polling data show that much of this is sailing right over the heads of the average Republican voter out there across the land. Most startlingly - at least to me - the latest USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that 74% of Republicans say they are unsure where Rudy Giuliani stands on the issue of legal same sex unions. That's little changed from January when we first asked this question.

Republicans are a little more knowledgeable about the fact that Giuliani is pro-choice on abortion. Still, more than half of the Republicans we recently interviewed said that they were unsure about where he stands on this issue -- which has received a great deal of intense pundit and commentator scrutiny [link added].

I agree with Newport's main point. Most Americans are not political junkies and do not follow politics obsessively.  Still, it is probably worth considering in this instance that headlines like the one Newport cites ("Giuliani Does a 180 on Marriage Issue?") probably leave some well informed Americans feeling genuinely "unsure" of his position.

Nonetheless one need not stop here for evidence that Americans do not make the same connections between issues as what Newport calls "the political class." Consider the widely held assumption that Congressional job approval numbers are down because Congressional Democrats have not been willing or able to cut off funding for war in Iraq. A few days ago, Chris Matthews made this point on MSNBC's Hardball during an interview with Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emmanuel:

[The reason] you have single or double-digit support right now is because Republicans don't like Democrats and Democrats want this war over with. That's why the combination of those negative votes hurt you in job approval.

Yet today's new survey from Fox News/Opinion Dynamics included some intriguing results that show it may not be that simple. They used open-ended questions to ask voters to explain in their own words why they approve or disapprove of both President Bush and Congress. When asked to explain why they disapprove of Bush, nearly half of Democrats (47%) named the war in Iraq. However, when they asked the same question of those who disapprove of the job Congress is doing, only 12% of Democrats mentioned the war in Iraq. Another 9% complained that Congress does not oppose or "stand up to" to President Bush enough. Far more could not volunteer anything to explain their disapproval (30%), answered in general terms (17% are coded as "not doing anything/bad job") or mentioned other issues.

Matthews is certainly right to say that "Democrats want this war over." A September poll by CBS News showed 91% of Democrats wanting to remove most U.S. troops from Iraq within two years (70% want most troops out within a year). But the fine points of the debate in Washington, the nitty-gritty details of what Congress does (and does not do) that get debated every day on shows like Hardball, remain remote and unclear for most Americans. The continuing Congressional stalemate over Iraq policy certainly contributes to the low ratings of "Congress" among Democrats, but it would be far too simple to say that Iraq explains it all.

For further reading: Back in April, the Pew Research Center updated their classic study of "What Americans Know" about politics and government. These studies track not only "how much Americans know about national and international affairs" in surveys conducted since 1989, but also look at how knowledge corresponds to the news sources that Americans say they turn to.

 

Comments
Andrew:

This is probably the most important fact to consider when reading polls: Americans are idiots. This combined with a media establishment dominated by millionaire Republicans is a lethal combination. A balanced media will highly increase the chances of enlightening the idiots; but Americans should stop reading the latest Britney Spears news and grab a newspaper or go online and browse through different sources of information; real information, that is. Seek the truth, for the truth shall set you free.

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