How Dumb are Voters Really? Not Dumb at All

After the most recent presidential election, questions regarding the competence of the electorate have come to the forefront. Political scientists claim that “most voters are ignorant or misinformed because the costs to them of acquiring political information greatly exceed the potential benefits,” (Brennan, 2016). Political scientist blame political ignorance being rampant in the national electorate as a root cause for belief in fake news. According to the Pew Research Center, the result of the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump can partially be explained by the white voters without college degrees in strategic states that voted Republican at slightly higher than usual rates. Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam from the Pew report on the 2016 election suggests that “among whites, Trump won an overwhelming share of those without a college degree; and among white college graduates — a group that many identified as key for a potential Clinton victory,” (Pew, 2016). With campaigns filled with alternative facts and news outlets reporting so called “fake news,” there is search to for an answer for why so many Americans fall for the lies and alternative facts championed by the candidates. Political knowledge is defined as is a general understanding of the political system works, and who runs the government (Kollman, 2014). Political knowledge is important to the political system because it promotes the support of democratic values, political participation and helps citizens understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups, (Galston, 2004).

The emphasis on uneducated voters in the most recent election leads to common belief that the United States electorate as a whole is incompetent. According to a political knowledge poll by the Texas Tribune from February 2017, the Texas electorate, across all party identifications, appears to more than competent. The average correct answer across the Texas Tribune polls was upwards of 75%. Among the total of the Texas Tribune political knowledge polls, Independents in Texas are the most knowledgeable group. Independents led in three of the four knowledge questions from the 2017 Texas Tribune Poll. Republicans and Independents have the same high average in the question regarding majority party in the House of Representatives (Fig. 1). Democrats have a higher average than both Republicans and Independents in only one poll, which is the poll about the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election (Fig. 3).

Republicans have higher averages than Democrats in three of the four knowledge questions asked by the Texas Tribune. However, it is less clear if Republicans have meaningfully higher levels of political knowledge than Democrats. In the knowledge question about the winner of the popular vote, Democrats have the highest proportion of correct answers by a significant margin but the Democrats finish last in all other knowledge questions (Fig. 3). The question in which all parties answered the lowest percentage was the question over Texas agency regulating oil and gas production (Fig. 4). Based on the 2017 Texas Tribune Poll data, the Texas electorate is more politically knowledgeable than the regular national voter.

When comparing similar questions asked by Pew’s national poll about Majority Party in the House of Representatives, all parties in Texas are more knowledgeable than both Republicans and Democrats nationally (Pew, 2012). The national averages in political knowledge polls from 2010 to 2012 by Pew show that Republicans have been the party that has higher political knowledge. The results of these political knowledge polls are partly due to demographic differences. According to a Pew national poll, “on average, Republicans are older and more affluent than either Democrats or Independents, and both of these are associated with knowledge about the parties’ positions and leaders,” (Pew, 2016) The demographic differences Pew is referencing are similar to the demographics that make up the political parties in Texas and thus reflect similar trends. Nationally, Republicans and Democrats have large differences on questions regarding current politics and geography. As shown in the results of the Pew poll, “Republicans are 19 points more likely than Democrats to know that the Republican Party has a majority in just the House of Representatives, and 14 points more likely to know that John Boehner is the speaker of the House,” (Pew, 2011). Republicans also score higher on questions with international implications. Using both the evidence and analysis from the polls in Texas and nationally, in Texas is first Independents, then Republicans and last Democrats. Though political scientists claim that belief in fake news is related to low amounts of political knowledge, according to the 2017 Texas Tribune Poll data and Pew national polls voters have higher than anticipated political knowledge. The explanation of low voter political knowledge as the explanation to voter belief in fake news is not credible due to the fact that the political knowledge of Americans is not low.

Figure 1, Source: February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll
Figure 2, Source: February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll
Figure 3, Source: February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll
Figure 4, Source: February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll

Works Cited

Bailey, Brian. “Well Known: Clinton and Gadhafi; Little Known: Who Controls Congress.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 31 Mar. 2011. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.

Brennan, Jason. “Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 2 May 2017.

Clark, Mary Pat. “What the Public Knows — In Words and Pictures.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. N.p., 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.

Gewurz, Danielle. “What the Public Knows about the Political Parties.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. N.p., 11 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.

Galston, William A. “Civic Education and Political Participation.” PS: Political Science and Politics 37, no. 2 (2004): 263–66.

Heimlich, Russell. “Well Known: Twitter; Little Known: John Roberts.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 15 July 2010. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.

Kollman, Ken. American Political System. S.l.: W W Norton, 2014. Print.

Tyson, Alec, and Shiva Maniam. “Behind Trump’s Victory: Divisions by Race, Gender, Education.” Pew Research Center, 09 Nov. 2016. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.