Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's the matter with voters?

What's the matter with voters?

"Nothing," says University of Michigan political scientist Skip Lupia.

Citizens are often accused of voting against their interests. In What's the Matter With Kansas?Thomas Frank speculates about why lower-income voters appear to vote against the financial self-interest by voting disproportionately for the Republican Party, which tends to support policies beneficial to the wealthier classes and corporations, and not for the Democratic Party, which tends to support tax cuts and social safety nets for lower-income groups.

One possible explanation is that voters just do not know any better and that if Democrats would just educate them of their electoral ignorance, then they would rush to the Democratic Party. This is, to some extent, an instance of naive realism. There is, however, some truth to at least the first half of that statement.

Voters tend to lack much political knowledge. For examples:

  • 77% of Americans cannot name one member of the United States House of Representatives (even the person representing their community). 
  • 76% of Americans do not know the unemployment rate.
  • 85% of Americans do not know what the New Deal was.
  • Between 50 and 65% of Americans do not know what the 1st and 5th amendments to the US Constitution entail.
Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter have studied this for the past 20 years and have come to the conclusion that Americans are poorly informed. This lack of political knowledge may be problematic, as knowledge correlates with many characteristics deemed necessary for "good citizenship" (e.g., voting for candidates who support one's position, holding elected officials accountable for their actions, having informed opinions supported by sound evidence).

Skip Lupia, though, questions whether knowing historical facts about government institutions or what all of the contents of a specific amendment actually constitutes political knowledge, or political intelligence. In The Democratic Dilemma, Lupia argues that voters may not be as poorly informed as many scholars suggest. He reviews evidence showing that less-informed people scoring low on these traditional measures of knowledge can vote in ways that appear informed. Specifically, if trusted sources (be it elected officials that one likes, newspapers, or media) endorse a specific issue, then these low knowledge voters will use that as a heuristic to determine their position on complicated issues (e.g., insurance reform in California). In another study with his colleague Markus Prior, they find that giving apparent low knowledge voters an incentive to have knowledge and time to learn about issues, can lead them to appear more knowledgeable (although, these data are less compelling to me).

Despite the frequent cries of an under-informed citizenry, Americans do seem capable of voting in ways that support their beliefs, even if outside observers (like, Thomas Frank) think otherwise. The lower-income citizens described by Frank who vote for Republicans may be voting against their economic best interest, but are voting in favor of the moral and social values, which tend to trump economic concerns at the polls. And, as Jon Krosnick's research on attitude strength shows us, strength of attitude is essential in predicting attitude-congruent behavior.

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