Political ignorance plays no favorites

Study says many voters 'know-nothings';

2004 election winners, losers recapped

Nov. 6, 2004

by David Kopel

Fellow Newsmedia critic Michael Tracey's last column bemoaned the ignorance of many George Bush supporters regarding some basic facts about the war on terror. For example, Tracey pointed out that many Bush voters believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, although the Sept. 11 commission found no clear proof of such involvement. Tracey himself did not appear to be among the mere 25 percent of the public who knew that the Bush administration had specifically denied that Saddam was involved in Sept. 11.

Tracey bemoaned the faith- based ignorance of the Bush voters, and, as is often the case, he was partially right.

Tracey erred, however, in his unstated assumption that John Kerry supporters (and sophisticated Europeans who can't vote, but who cheered for Kerry) are the slightest bit more rationally informed than Bush voters.

According to polls, many youthful Kerry voters believed in the hoax that Bush will reinstate the draft next spring. According to polls, many people viewed and believed Michael Moore's fraudulent Fahrenheit 9/11,one of the most audacious collections of lies since Joseph Goebbels lost his job in the public relations business.

Moreover, as detailed by Ilya Somin's recent study for the Cato Institute, When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy,fewer than half of American voters know basic facts that should be obvious to someone who reads a daily newspaper. In 2000, fewer than half knew that Al Gore was more supportive of abortion rights and environmental regulation than was Bush, or that the crime rate declined under the Clinton administration. In 2004, a majority was clueless about the content of the Patriot Act, the existence of the congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, and of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Overall, a quarter to a third of the American electorate are "know-nothings," Somin shows. Willful ignorance is a bipartisan problem.

One loser in the election was The Guardian(a British newspaper that Tracey and I both enjoy), which set up a program for its well-educated and leftist British readers to e-mail voters in Clark County, Ohio. The American backlash against supercilious Britons lecturing Americans about how to vote revived memories of the unpleasantness of 1776, and The Guardianabandoned the effort. As Northwestern University Law Professor James Lindgren observes, in 2004 Clark County voted 4 percent more Republican (relative to the Ohio average) than the county had in 2000.

An even bigger loser: Exit polls. The Dow Jones Average plunged a hundred points when The Drudge Report announced that early exit polls showed Kerry winning almost every battleground state. The exit polls in 2002 likewise forecast many Democratic Senate victories (including in Colorado) which did not materialize, and the exit polls in 2000 forecast a comfortable Gore win.

Very big losers: As detailed by the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, the three major television networks gave Kerry the most positive treatment of any major party presidential nominee since statistics began being compiled in 1980. Bush got the most hostile treatment of any nominee except for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Winners: Political pollsters, who were generally accurate in forecasting Bush to win the popular vote by a few percent. The only loser was John Zogby, who predicted John Kerry would win over 300 electoral votes. In 2002, Zogby got numerous Senate races wrong by a wide margin.

Even bigger winner: RealClearPolitics.com, the newly indispensable Web site for political junkies, which provided a consolidated source for all public polls. The final RCP state poll averages predicted the winner in every battleground state except Wisconsin, and in every Senate race except Florida.

Biggest winner: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Three decades ago Kerry helped create the myth that Americans in Vietnam routinely perpetrated war crimes. He met with the Vietnamese Communist tyrants in Paris and then toured the United States restating their talking points (as detailed in New York Sunstories last week, which the traditional media ignored).

The Swift vets overcame the hysterical opposition of the traditional media and demolished Kerry's absurd effort to make his Vietnam record the center of his case for becoming president. The Swift vets did not prove every charge they made, but they showed that Kerry had lied about being in Cambodia, and had obtained his first Purple Heart under very dubious circumstances.

Finally, if you can't understand how someone could have good reasons for voting for Kerry or for Bush, your news diet is grossly deficient in ideological diversity. Start reading a high-quality policy magazine or weblog that challenges your prejudices. You may not change your positions, but you might begin to understand how reasonable people can differ in a democracy.


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