10/26/2007 07:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

They Know Less Than You Think

Two new survey findings -- from Gallup and Fox News -- remind us of a
lesson that always bears repeating. Those of us that write and obsess about
politics typically over-estimate the degree to which ordinary Americans follow
the day-to-day workings of government and politics. It is what Gallup's Frank Newport
calls "insider parochialism" in his latest installment of Gallup Guru:
"The tendency for those of us who are following the presidential election
closely to assume that everyone else is too."

Newport provides an example of how one such controversy
-- Rudy Giuliani's stands on "key social and value issues" like gay marriage -- is not yet on the radar screens of most Americans even though political junkies
like us examine "every word the former New York City mayor utters" for evidence
that "he is ignoring, sticking to, or modifying his historical positions on
abortion and same-sex marriage." Newport's
central point:

show that much of this is sailing right over the heads of the average
Republican voter out there across the land. Most startlingly - at least to me -
the latest USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that 74% of Republicans say they are
unsure where Rudy Giuliani stands on the issue of legal same sex unions. That's
little changed from January when we first asked this question.

Republicans are a little more knowledgeable about
the fact that Giuliani is pro-choice on abortion. Still, more than half of the
Republicans we recently interviewed said that they were unsure about
where he stands on this issue -- which has received a great deal of
intense pundit and commentator scrutiny [link added].

I agree with Newport's
main point. Most Americans are not political junkies and do not follow politics obsessively.  Still, it is probably
worth considering in this instance that headlines like the one Newport cites ("Giuliani
Does a 180 on Marriage Issue?
") probably leave some well informed Americans
feeling genuinely "unsure" of his position.

Nonetheless one need not stop here for evidence that
Americans do not make the same connections between issues as what Newport calls "the
political class." Consider the widely held assumption that Congressional job
approval numbers are down because Congressional Democrats have not been willing
or able to cut off funding for war in Iraq. A few days ago, Chris
Matthews made this point on MSNBC's Hardball during an interview with Democratic
Caucus Chair Rahm Emmanuel:

[The reason] you have single or
double-digit support right now is because Republicans don't like Democrats and
Democrats want this war over with. That's why the combination of those negative
votes hurt you in job approval.

Yet today's new survey from Fox
News/Opinion Dynamics
included some intriguing results that show it may
not be that simple. They used open-ended questions to ask voters to explain in
their own words why they approve or disapprove of both President Bush and
Congress. When asked to explain why they disapprove of Bush, nearly half of
Democrats (47%) named the war in Iraq. However, when they asked the
same question of those who disapprove of the job Congress is doing, only 12% of Democrats mentioned the war in Iraq.
Another 9% complained that Congress does not oppose or "stand up to" to
President Bush enough. Far more could not volunteer anything to explain their
disapproval (30%), answered in general terms (17% are coded as "not doing
anything/bad job") or mentioned other issues.

Matthews is certainly right to say that "Democrats want this
war over." A September poll by CBS News showed
91% of Democrats wanting to remove most U.S.
troops from Iraq
within two years (70% want most troops out within a year). But the fine points
of the debate in Washington, the nitty-gritty details of what Congress does
(and does not do) that get debated every day on shows like Hardball, remain
remote and unclear for most Americans. The continuing Congressional stalemate
over Iraq policy certainly
contributes to the low ratings of "Congress" among Democrats, but it would be far
too simple to say that Iraq
explains it all.

For further reading: Back in April, the Pew Research
Center updated their
classic study of "What Americans
" about politics and government. These studies track not only "how much
Americans know about national and international affairs" in surveys conducted since
1989, but also look at how knowledge corresponds to the news sources that
Americans say they turn to.