Monday, July 2, 2012

Catch of the Day

Sarah Kliff flags a key statistic from a new Kaiser survey:
41 percent of Americans unaware of a Supreme Court ruling on health care last week.
One of the most difficult things to keep front and center for everyone who cares passionately about politics -- and for those who one way or another pay attention to politics for a living -- is just how distant many Americans are from the day-to-day discussion that we all focus on so intensely. That's part of why gaffes don't really matter: people aren't paying attention. It's part of why general election debates don't matter much: people aren't paying attention. It's why the "bully pulpit" is consistently overrated: people aren't paying attention.

And remember that those who are paying attention are almost always the most partisan, and therefore the least likely to be affected by new information, at least at the level of vote choice. Yes, there are some true independents who are high-information voters, but very, very, few of them.

As I've said: this isn't unique to politics -- there are plenty of people who know nothing of football, or popular music, or what have you. The combination that makes politics unusual is that it's very high visibility in the mass media; that political outcomes have massive effects on people's lives whether they pay attention or not; and that a whole lot of the people who don't pay much attention do tune in occasionally. I'm not sure what else is highly visible and many people do watch the Super Bowl without paying attention the rest of the year, but football doesn't affect the lives of non-fans in any significant way. Science and technology certainly does affect people's lives, but it's a lot less visible in the mass media.

Also: nice catch!


  1. I'm usually one of those leading the chant of "politics is a sideshow in the circus of life!"

    But, I have to admit, that 41% really surprises me. I wouldn't have guessed higher than 25%. Between the breathless coverage and the water-cooler effect, I would have expected greater penetration.

  2. This is understandable if you're talking about, say, the Fast and Furious hearings. But not knowing about the Supreme Court ruling suggests that one isn't keeping up with national news at all, not just that one doesn't care about the day to day working of politics. It's like not knowing we have troops in Afghanistan, or (in 2005) not being aware that a big hurricane just destroyed New Orleans. I only exaggerate slightly--all you would have to do is consume news at some point the day the decision was announced.

    1. Maybe when people see the phrase "Supreme Court", their eyes avert to a more exciting article, one about wars or catastrophes or Lady Gaga.

  3. I remember an article from way back citing a poll showing that no more than 30% of Americans had ever heard of cap and trade. I found that entirely unsurprising (heck, even I don't totally understand cap and trade). In recent days I've been tempted by the idea that the fact it was Roberts and not Kennedy who proved to be the swing vote makes it harder for Romney and other Republicans to depict it as judicial overreach by liberal and RINO justices. Then I remember that probably most Americans can't even name a single justice, let alone identify the political orientations of all of them.

  4. Jonanthan, do you think that this might be at least slightly detrimental to political life? Democracy is about people governing themselves and politics effects every day life even if most people have their heads up their butts. The best run countries seem to be the ones with the largest percentage of informed voters.

    1. Exactly. Politics isn't like sports or pop culture - our system depends on all (or most) of the people having at least some engagement with selecting public officials and holding them accountable for their decisions.
      When the only people involved in politics are the radicalized, you get results like 2010, when the House (and quite a few State Houses) was taken over by a weird caste of ideologues whose opinions were clearly not shared by a majority of citizens.

  5. It would be a bit more precise to say that 41% didn't know the SCOTUS upheld the law--the questions were:

    "To the best of your knowledge, has the United States Supreme Court announced their final ruling on the case challenging parts of the health care law, or not?"


    "As far as you know did the Supreme Court decide to (strike down) the health care law or (uphold) the health care law? (ROTATE OPTIONS IN PARENTHESES)"

    18% answered "no" to the first question, and 17% didn't know/refused to answer. 6% answered "yes" to the first question, and then got the second question wrong.

    1. Ah, but we can further assume that SOME of the 60%(ish, with rounding) who "knew" and "got it right" were guessing. And then it gets further muddied because those 6% might not necessarily be wrong...what if the part they thought was most crucial was the commerce clause justification (unlikely) or the Medicaid part (also unlikely)? Or, what if they watched CNN for 7 minutes on Thursday, then turned it off? They would have gotten the question right if they said yes then the context of retaining the information they had been presented with.

      We measure public opinion with very broad and imprecise instruments. But, for me, the larger point is the guessing. I know why we assume that those who get it right knew the answer, but that's rarely 100% true.

  6. Jonathan or other poli-sci scholars,

    I'm curious: what percentage of the US voting age population is usually empirically deemed or informally assumed to be "high-information" or reasonably well informed? I'm sure this is an amorphous and controversial question, but what are some prominent answers that have been offered?


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