Friday, July 26, 2013

The (Un)Informed Electorate

We Consume 35 Terabytes of Information A Day. Most of it? Internet Porn
If you pay attention to any partisan political blog for any period of time you will discover that one of the major malefactors in American politics is the "Low Information Voter" (LIV): this is a person who votes (at least sometimes) but doesn't have the facts. As a result they are easily swayed by empty rhetoric and nonsense propaganda which 'the other side' puts out. Low Information Voters are responsible* for supporting things like:
  • Voter ID Laws
  • De-funding Planned Parenthood
  • Obama
One might begin to wonder if, indeed, there really is such a thing as a LIV and, if so, do they ... you know ... all really exist on the Democratic side of the aisle? Let's take a look.

The Impact Of Informed Voting
Whether or not most LIVs are Democrats or not they certainly do exist in political science. The Low Information Voter is distinguished by the fact that, given a choice of candidates with specific positions on a given set of issues they "get it wrong"--that is, they vote for a candidate who does not correlate with their position on the issues. They pick the wrong guy!

That's an audacious statement to make--but the science backs it up:

This chart shows how a segment of voters--classified in level of informed-ness from Low to High--select their presidential candidates on the issue of withdrawing troops from Vietnam (between Nixon and McGovern in 1972). Although both candidates had somewhat similarly sounding positions they were, in fact, very different and quite concrete. The more information a voter had the more sharply they sorted between the candidates--that is, the more likely they were to make a specific choice**.

Information Isn't The Only Thing: Issue Complexity Counts
The article linked above (The Two Faces of Issue Voting) distinguishes issue types by Easy (segregation) and Hard (Vietnam withdrawal). In the case of Hard issues the more you know the more you sort. In the case of Easy issues, though, the "drift" between Low and High information voters is much lower: you can make the 'correct' decision (choose the candidate that represents you) without studying. For an issue to be Easy it must generally:
  1. Be symbolic rather than technical
  2. Deal with ends rather than means
  3. Have been around for a while
These allow the LIV to get a "gut feeling" for it without having to do the math.

Easy and Hard aren't the distinction of issues we should look at, though: there are also issues that apply specifically to special interest groups and issues that apply to the electorate at large. Electoral Competition With Informed and Uninformed Voters (available on JSTOR) aligns issues by whether they are particularistic (benefiting special interest groups specifically) or collective (having costs and benefits for everyone). In David P. Baron's (Sanford University) formulation:
I present a model of electoral competition in which candidates raise campaign contributions by choosing policies that benefit interest groups and then expend those contributions to influence voters who are unformed about the policies. Informed voters, however, vote based on those policies so candidates face a trade-off between choosing a policy to generate funds to attract the uniformed vote and choosing a policy to attract the informed vote.
The Omnivore is not especially given to emoticons but: :-O. Is this the case? The answer is maybe: he has a lot of math. He notes that all things being equal positions will tend towards the median / moderate. As people like incumbents have a built-in advantage they can afford to be more moderate than challengers. That isn't such a stretch. He also notes that depending on the specific issues and positions the battle may come down to informed voters if the candidate sees that's where his play is. But good luck with that. I think the takeaway here is that LIVs don't just exist--but are, in fact, a crucial part of some strategies.

How Do Informed vs. Uninformed Voters Vote?
Given that LIVs "get it wrong" and that "getting it wrong" is a key part of some strategies, how does that play out on the national stage? The short answer: Historically speaking? It's good for Democrats! If you're wondering how that could possibly be the case, I bet you voted for Obama the last two elections. But let's look at the math. Larry M. Bartels*** is a political scientist who tries to determine what a "fully informed electorate" would look like (voting behavior wise, that is):
I Prefer Balisong Calculations, Myself
This chart is hard to decipher but what it shows is the correlation for individuals (first column) vs. the masses (second column) and the number set is how that column would have deviated from the actual vote had they all been "fully informed." Negative numbers are more Republican. Positive numbers are more Democrat. From the conclusion:
[T]he aggregate deviations from "fully informed" voting shown in the second column of Table 3 do not appear to be idiosyncratic deviations that advantage or disadvantage particular candidates in random, unpredictable ways. Rather, the aggregate deviations display two clear and politically consequential patterns: relatively uninformed voters are more likely, other things being equal, to support incumbents and Democrats.
End of story? Not ... exactly. Firstly, how individual demographics vary by level of information isn't identical: the more informed female voters are the more likely they are to vote Democrat--not the opposite. For black voters, level of information doesn't matter. They're generally Democrat anyway. The opposite is true fo for the rich: High or Low information? They vote Republican.

The "drift" isn't the same either. Fully informed Catholics are disproportionately likely to vote Republican over less informed voters--moreso than the population at large. In 2008, again, we saw something similar:
These charts show the difference in candidate selection across the political spectrum of low and high information voters. For the low information voters (top), a person in the middle of the political spectrum might choose either McCain or Obama: we see the spikes in the middle because the candidates look kinda the same to them. For the high information voters (bottom) we see marked polarization: the spikes are on either end. If you are a well-informed voter the candidates look very different.

By the time 2008 was done and 2012 rolled around the number of low-information likely voters had dwindled to almost nothing and were evenly split (the quote talks about undecided voters--but in the article it points out that these are also low-information voters).
Vavreck has been tracking a group of 44,000 voters since December 2011. When she started, 94 percent were already leaning toward a candidate. Of the 6 percent who were truly undecided, 33 percent now say they’re going with Mitt Romney and 37 percent with PresidentBarack Obama. The ranks of the original undecided voters were partially replenished by voters who had expressed a preference in 2011 but have since grown uncertain. Of the new undecideds, slightly more were Romney supporters in 2011 than were Obama supporters, but the total numbers are small.
Indeed, some pundits were saying in 2012 that Romney might benefit from low-information voters as Obama's celebrity diminished:
Lohan is a low information voter convinced that (a) employment is really important, (b) thinks that employment is not being sufficiently handled by the White House right now and (c) thinks that Mitt Romney is better equipped to handle employment.
Where Is The Low Information Voter Today?
As I alluded to above, the lay-use of the term "Low Information Voter," usually equates to "how much this guy agrees with me." Someone convinced Global Warming is happening can either be a dupe of a massive hoax or a well informed civic citizen depending on which side of the aisle you sit on.

According to a Pew Research poll (2012) both Republicans and Democrats, today, are about equally well informed:
On average, Republican voters fare somewhat better than Democratic voters (7.8 vs. 6.9 questions correct) on the twelve question knowledge quiz. Democratic voters struggle to identify the Republican Party as the majority in the House of Representatives (29% correct) and John Roberts as the U.S. Chief Justice (31%).
On most other questions, however, there are relatively modest differences between Republican and Democratic voters.
In more objective terms, though, what you listen to can make a difference about (at least) what facts you know. Here's a chart from a 2011 Farleigh Dickinson University poll asking a bunch of fact-based questions and taking down what major media outlets their respondents followed:
Higher Numbers Are More Informed
As you can see, people who followed no news scored better than people who followed Fox News. People who follow The Daily Show outscored Just Talk Radio. NPR beat them all.

The Omnivore's Conclusion
I think that two things have happened in the past 8 years which have changed how voters become informed and how that works. The first is that news has become more edutainment-like. We see debates that look like talk-shows and are considered dramatic. Social media--which everyone is now on--is full of political messages (of dubious credibility--but still). That only six-percent of the electorate was undecided late in 2012 is telling: we've gotten very good at presenting candidates--on both sides--as celebrities.

The second thing that has happened is this: remember those two types of issues? Hard and Easy? The "Easy" issues were ones where you could correctly identify where a candidate stood without doing the homework (it doesn't mean they are easy to solve--it just means they are easy to identify where someone stands--as opposed to, say, parsing two complex plans for the Vietnam draw-down). I think that with jersey-politics (identity politics) at an all time high even the Hard Issues have become Easy.

Part of this is the the state of gridlock (compare the GOP's healthcare reform to Obamacare--oh, there isn't one. Okay--how about the 2008's congress' budget to the GOP's? Oh--there's not one. Right). Part of this is that the polarized electorate (very polarized in 2008--moreso than before) made "hard choices easy:" If the electorate is VERY polarized a candidate may be clearer about their stance rather than "both claiming the middle."

I also think that what passes for information has gotten ... skewed. Just as we no longer agree on facts across the aisle (global warming?) we also have injected some stuff into the dialog that's going to be hard for anyone to make sense of (the birth certificate). I have read about Romney's Jobs plan--but I can't parse it: I'd have to be an economist (or, more likely, several economists).

And finally, if you want to say that "high information voters" are the smart Republicans who see the world as it really is, just remember the poll-skewing nonsense that hounded the GOP (and Team Romney) right up until Karl Rove had his meltdown live on Fox.

* Depending, of course, on who you listen to. One man's Low Information Voter is another man's fully informed activist in terms of how they're presented at least. Also, keep in mind that the problem with an LIV is not specifically that they are stupid or lazy (although perhaps that correlates) but rather that (a) they do not understand where the candidates stand on issues that effect them and (b) that they may not well understand those issues themselves.
** The argument that LIVs just "don't care" and so voted randomly is more or less addressed in the article. What correlates to the vote is, in fact, how well informed they are--it seems most people did care and the more they knew, the more they sorted accurately.
*** Lest you conclude he's a "tool of the right" (even though he did rebut What's the Matter With Kansas) you can check out his Salon Article: Want a Strong Economy? Vote Democrat.

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