Our Disinformed Electorate
December 12, 2008
by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks JacksonWe saw more aggressive fact-checking by journalists in this election than ever before. Unfortunately, as a post-election Annenberg Public Policy Center poll confirms, millions of voters were bamboozled anyway.
- More than half of U.S. adults (52 percent) said the claim that Sen. Barack Obama’s tax plan would raise taxes on most small businesses is truthful, when in fact only a small percentage would see any increase.
- More than two in five (42.3 percent) found truth in the claim that Sen. John McCain planned to "cut more than 800 billion dollars in Medicare payments and cut benefits," even though McCain made clear he had no intent to cut benefits.
These aren’t isolated examples. One in four (25.6 percent) of those who earned too little to have seen any tax increase under Obama's plan nevertheless believed that he intended to "increase your own federal income taxes," accepting McCain's repeated claims that "painful" tax hikes were being proposed on "families." Nearly two in five (39.8 percent) thought McCain had said he would keep troops in combat in Iraq for up to 100 years, though he’d actually spoken of a peacetime presence such as that in Japan or South Korea. Close to one in three (31 percent) believed widely disseminated claims that Obama would give Social Security or health care benefits to illegal immigrants, when in fact he would do neither.
We’re not surprised. As we wrote in "unSpun: finding facts in a world of disinformation," the same thing happened in 2004 when majorities of voters believed untrue things that had been fed to them by the Bush and Kerry campaigns.
One reason is obvious: Political ads run thousands of times and reach far more people than articles on FactCheck.org. On our best day, we were read by 462,678 visitors. By contrast, the Obama campaign aired two ads claiming that McCain planned to cut Medicare benefits a total of 17,614 times at a cost estimated to be more than $7 million – which is several times more than FactCheck.org's entire annual budget.
There are deeper reasons as well. We humans all have a basic disposition to embrace our side's arguments and reject or ignore those offered by an opponent. Our polling reflects that. After taking differences in age, race, gender and education into account, Republicans were still 4.4 times more likely than Democrats to believe that Obama would raise taxes on most small businesses, and Democrats were 3.2 times more likely than Republicans to believe that McCain would cut Medicare benefits. Simply put, partisanship trumps evidence.
This also helps explain why so many people accept the most preposterous claims circulated by chain e-mail messages and ignorant or irresponsible bloggers. Our poll found nearly one in five (19 percent) falsely think Obama is a Muslim, and even more (22 percent) find truth in the claim that he’s nearly half Arab. Republicans were 2.8 times more likely than Democrats to buy the Muslim claim, and just over twice as likely to swallow the half-Arab notion.
This is "group think" in action. We humans tend to marry, date, befriend and talk with people who already agree with us, and hence are less likely to say, "Wait a minute – that’s just not true."
Consultants also dupe us by exploiting our partisan preconceptions. People tend to believe Democrats are more likely than Republicans to raise taxes, so McCain was pushing on an open door when he repeatedly claimed Obama would raise taxes on ordinary voters, and not just the most affluent. By the same token, Obama found it easy to sell his bogus claim that McCain planned to cut Medicare benefits by 22 percent, because Republicans have a reputation as opponents of social programs.
Voters aren’t highly knowledgeable about government to begin with. Our poll shows that nearly one in three (31 percent) think Congress or the president, not the Supreme Court, have the final call on whether laws are constitutional. Nearly one in 10 (9.9 percent) think Republicans still control the House of Representatives, even though they’ve had two years to catch up on results of the 2006 elections.
And voters, once deceived, tend to stay that way despite all evidence. Nearly half in our poll (46 percent) agreed that Saddam Hussein played a role in the attacks of September 11, even though no solid evidence has ever emerged to support this notion.
None of this bodes well for the future, in our view. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns that systematically disinform the public can only make the task of governing harder for the eventual winner. But are we discouraged that our efforts didn’t prevent this? Not at all. If we hadn’t tried, it might have been worse.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Brooks Jackson is director of the APPC project FactCheck.org. They are co-authors of "unSpun, finding facts in a world of disinformation."
The Annenberg post-election poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which interviewed 3,008 adults in the continental United States by telephone from Nov. 5 through Nov. 18, 2008. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ±2.3 percent.