Expert Commentary

Local political knowledge and assessments of citizen competence

2012 study in Public Opinion Quarterly on evidence that citizens have more knowledge of local and national politics than scholars previously believed.


The low-information voter, or “LIV” — not to be confused with the undecided voter or the swing voter — is often defined as someone who bases political decisions on minimal knowledge or emotional reaction over logic. The news media periodically highlight the average U.S. citizen’s apparent ignorance about national and international politics; some observers worry that a widespread lack of knowledge about policy is a contributing factor to increased political gridlock. But scholars sometimes note that it is rational for citizens to exert little effort to obtain information inessential to their practical daily life; political scientists point out that citizens are frequently knowledgeable about policy topics salient in their lives — for example, the parent and the local school board budget, or the small business owner and the tax code.

A 2012 study from Portland State University published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Local Political Knowledge and Assessments of Citizen Competence,” examined differences in political knowledge at both the local and national levels. The study, by Lee Shaker, analyzed data from a random telephone survey of 993 Philadelphia residents in November 2007, in the wake of a mayoral election in Philadelphia. Survey questions assessed understanding of current events, local and national politics, and political understanding in general. The survey differs from many previous tests of citizen knowledge, insofar as it includes questions relating to the specific, local political context.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data suggest that, when information levels at both the local and national levels are tested, citizens display more knowledge than found in previous studies: “Scholars may have overlooked evidence that the public as a whole is generally more competent than believed by not including citizens’ local political knowledge in their work.”
  • Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents responded correctly to fewer than one-third of the local political items (meaning that 61% answered one-third or more local questions correctly); 38% of respondents responded correctly to fewer than one-third of the national questions. That means that 26% of respondents qualified as truly low information citizens — those who could answer only one third or fewer of survey questions — on both the national and local levels. (The study labels these citizens “know nothings.”) Older, wealthier, more educated citizens are significantly less likely to fall into this “know nothing” category; those with low information about national politics were more likely to be younger, poorer, less educated, female and a member of a minority group.
  • “Assessments of competence, which often draw broad conclusions about the state of the American electorate based solely on national-level measurements, should be qualified as assessments of national political competence rather than citizen competence…. Different citizens are knowledgeable about different matters based on relevance, accessibility, and aptitude. Even a lack of competence, as conceived of and measured by scholars, can be the result of rational decisions made by individuals.”
  • “After controlling for age, income, and education, neither black respondents nor women knew less about local politics than their white, male counterparts, though they were less knowledgeable about national politics…. The first conclusion that should be drawn here is simply that certain groups of citizens are more attuned to local or national affairs….”
  • Respondents with some college education or less or who earned less than $100,000 a year knew more about local politics than national politics; those with at least a college degree or who earned more than $100,000 a year knew more about national than local politics.
  • Black respondents were significantly less likely to have low levels of local information than white respondents; there was no gender difference in the percentage of those with low levels of local knowledge. In both political domains, knowledge levels rise with educational attainment. The relationship between education and local political knowledge is consistently positive, but smaller than the relationship between education and national political knowledge.

The author concludes, “More energy should be expended in understanding the factors that facilitate ‘competence’ and less on simply quantifying it.”

A related study by the same researcher, “Citizens’ Local Political Knowledge and the Role of Media Access,” concludes that citizens who have access to cable TV or satellite radio are frequently less knowledgeable about local political affairs, suggesting that media consumption habits play a strong role in information levels.

Tags: presidency, race

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