The Curse Of The Low Information Voter

by Michael Maynard
September 10, 2014

Central to the functioning of democracy is the citizenry’s voting. But what if a large part of the citizenry doesn’t know whom or what they are voting for?

Yesterday was primary election day in Massachusetts. Being a good liberal/progressive, I voted in the Democratic primary. I knew the candidates I was going to vote for in the various contests when I went into the voting booth, except for the top of the ticket, the Governor.

There were three excellent gubernatorial candidates: Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman and Public Healthcare Industry executive Donald Berwick. It was a tough choice for me. I went to high school with Martha Coakley. She is extremely smart and a passionate public defender, especially of women’s rights. She has been an effective Attorney General. Steve Grossman has used his time in the treasurer’s office to promote local banks and urban redevelopment. Donald Berwick was the most liberal of the three and supports a single-payer healthcare system. Martha Coakley was ahead in the polls. Steve Grossman was endorsed by the Boston Globe. Donald Berwick’s views on the issues were closest to my own.

However, I still have the painful memory of Martha losing the 2010 Senate race to the Koch Brothers stooge, Scott Brown. I’m concerned that she will not run an effective campaign against former health insurance company president and  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s pay-for-play buddy, Charlie Baker. As Treasurer, Grossman has had to deal with various conflict of interest charges concerning the using the professional sports teams, which his sports marketing company represents, to help promote the state. Berwick has no elective office experience.

I did know that I was going to vote former Assistant Attorney General, Maura Healey, to replace her boss as Attorney General. But I had no clue who the three candidates for the Lieutenant Governor and the three candidates for the Treasurer were. I did do some research on all candidates and would up voting for all the candidates that won. I did not want to walk into the voting booth as a low information voter. Before doing the research, I knew more about the Iowa senate race between Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst than I did the Massachusetts Democratic candidates.

The term low information voter was first coined by political scientist and professor Samuel Popkin in his book “The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns”. Popkin performed in depth analysis of three presidential primary campaigns: Jimmy Carter in 1976, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Gary Hart, Walter Mondale and Henry”Scoop” Jackson in 1984. Popkin theorizes that low information voters choose their candidate based upon advertising and the opinions of others more than their understanding of the candidate’s policies and positions.

Popkin’s analysis is based on one main premise: voters use low information rationality gained in their daily lives, through the media and through personal interactions, to evaluate candidates and facilitate electoral choices.

Political “Knowledge”: Despite a more educated electorate, knowledge of civics has not increased significantly in forty years. According to Popkin, theorists who argue that political competence could be measured by knowledge of “civics book” knowledge and names of specific bills (i.e. the Michigan studies) have missed the larger point that voters do manage to gain an understanding of where candidates stand on important issues. He argues that education has not changed how people think, but it does allow us to better interpret and connect different cues.

Information as a By-Product: Popkin argues that most of the information voters learn about politics is picked up as a by-product of activities they pursue as a part of daily life (homeowners learn about interest rates, shoppers learn about prices and inflation etc.–thus, people know how the economy is doing). Media helps to explain what politicians are doing and the relevance of those actions for individuals, and campaigns help to clarify the issues. Voters develop affinity towards like-minded opinion leaders in media and in personal interactions.

Popkin cites the example of how Gerald Ford, in 1976, tried to eat a tamale without removing the wrapper first. Popkin says Mexican Americans, who knew only this about Ford. reasoned that he didn’t understand them or their issues.

Pew Research did an extensive survey on how informed Americans are about politics. Pew compared what people knew in 1989 and 2007. Their results are staggering – no difference.

Low Information Voter Chart

The survey provides further evidence that changing news formats are not having a great deal of impact on how much the public knows about national and international affairs. The polling does find the expected correlation between how much citizens know and how avidly they watch, read, or listen to news reports. The most knowledgeable third of the public is four times more likely than the least knowledgeable third to say they enjoy keeping up with the news “a lot.”

The national Republican Party believes it was the low information voter that led to Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012. The following quote is from Dustin Hawkins, a “conservative politics expert”.

The description of a class of people known as “low information voters” became a popularized term among conservatives following the 2008 election of Barack Obama. It was a very common phrase during the 2012 election between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. While the phrase is often used jokingly, it is also a serious description of a group of people. While the term might be viewed as being insulting to some voters, the reality is this segment poses a credible problem for Republican politicians.

The oft-talked about low-information voters are those people who have little interest or understanding of political affairs, rarely watch the news, and can’t name major political figures or national events.  Yet, they vote anyway with their limited knowledge. Low information voters can definitely be both Republican and Democratic voters, but Democratic “outreach” to these voters hit new heights in 2008. Typically, these low-information types were not highly-likely voters. Targeting these people in both 2008 led to a handsome victory for Obama in 2008.

Excuse me? Isn’t it the Republican Party who created the Southern Strategy of targeting low information voting white males using veiled and not-so-veiled racist and homophobic language?

And ran a campaign impugning Barack Obama’s citizenship and allegiance to the United States?

The Republican way of targeting the low information voter is to appeal to the reptilian and limbic parts of the brain through using fear, the base level emotion that stops the rational thinking processes. Because all of the key Republican economic and international policy ideas have been proven to be false, that’s all they have left – playing on the base emotions. Unfortunately, by doing so, they have made it more difficult to govern because the base level response to fear is panic and immobility. The right-wing reliance on creating threats, real or imagined, not reason and common sense, means constant drum-beating on how the world is going to hell, not what to do to keep this from happening. This is the curse of the low information voters – they vote for candidates who are mediagenic and extremist, but not capable legislators or administrators. Misguided and poorly considered policies and political gridlock are the results. We all pay the price.

Ultimately, it was reason and common sense that I relied upon when I entered the voting booth. Since I am not a low information voter, I must vote for political candidates that would do the best job of governing, based upon my understanding of their policies and political beliefs.

I voted for Martha Coakley. She was and is the best candidate to govern the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the next 4 years. She won. All of my other choices won too.




Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

5 Comment on “The Curse Of The Low Information Voter

  1. Pingback: The Curse Of The Low Information Voter II – Show Us Show Me State | MICHAEL A. MAYNARD

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