As someone who has spent much of his career as a paid
political professional, there are moments in most campaigns when the horserace
coverage of the campaign makes me want to scream. Not that I dislike horserace
coverage -- I enjoy it as much as any political junkie. No, the problem is that
it so often misses one fundamental aspect of the way American politics works. All
too often, news and commentary about public opinion makes the implicit
assumption that most Americans are attentive to politics. If all Americans
followed every campaign story closely, it would make sense to watch national
polls for evidence of a immediate reactions. But it just isn't so.
The reality is that politically attentive, well-informed Americans
constitute what U.C.L.A political scientist John Zaller, in his highly
respected text The
Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, calls a "small but important
Members of this minority can
recognize important senators on sight, accurately recount each day's leading
news stories and keep track of the major events in Washington and other world capitals. They
are, thus, heavily exposed to elite discourse about politics.
Any attempt to gauge the absolute
size of this highly informed minority is essentially arbitrary, though see Bennett, 1989;
and Keeter, ). Nonetheless, one indication of size is when
respondents to a National Election Study were asked to name as many members of
the U.S. Supreme Court as they could remember, about 1.9 percent of the public
could mention as many as half the members [p. 16, links added].
Or consider another measure. According to the Nielsen
by TVNewser, last week's MSNBC debate garnered just 2.4 million viewers,
ranking it sixth among the sixteen debates this year. The biggest debate
audience so far was 3.1 million for the September 5 Fox News Republican debate.
As Jay Cost points
out, that audience amounts to "about 4% of the first Bush-Kerry debate in
So at one extreme are those of us who closely follow politics.
At the other are the roughly 25% that have been telling the Pew Research
Center they follow
campaign news "not
closely at all." Of course, many of these totally inattentive Americans do not bother
So the vast majority of Americans fall into a critical middle
group that pays sporadic attention to politics, mostly through television. Again,
Probably from some combination of
civic obligation and the entertainment value of politics, a majority pays
enough attention to public affairs to learn something about it. But even so, it
is easy to underestimate just how little typical Americans know about even the
most prominent political events - and also how quickly they forget what for a
time they do understand [p.
Consider some recent findings from the political
knowledge study fielded by the Pew
last February. At that time, only 15% of adults could identify Harry Reid as
the Majority Leader of the Senate. Only 21% knew that Robert Gates is the
Secretary of Defense (without prompting, though 37% could identify his title
when offered four possible choices). Only 24% knew that that both houses of
Congress had recently passed legislation to raise the minimum wage.
And yet time and again, some event - like last week's debate
and the coverage that followed - captures the attention of political junkies. Inevitably,
journalists turn to national public opinion polls of all adults anticipating
major shifts in opinion and surprised to see little or no change.
We should note that the current upward trend in
support for Hillary Clinton kicked off just after the July 23 CNN/YouTube
debate during which Clinton and Obama sparred
over whether to meet with the leaders of Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North
support now is 5 to 6 points higher on our trend estimates than in early July. Both
a Pew Research Center survey in late July
and other analysis based on more
recent Gallup surveys shows Clinton's gains coming mostly from college
educated, who tend to pay more attention to political news to those without
Keep in mind, however, that the statistically meaningful
six-point gain did not occur in a week's time. It has been spread out over
nearly four months, amounting to a percentage point or two a month since late
July. At that rate, the odds are that any significant shift since last week will
be lost in the usual random variation (i.e. "margin of error") inherent in
opinion surveys, especially if we focus on only one or two polls.
Going forward, it may help to thing about three different
campaigns that are now underway nationally. The first is among the tiny but
influential group that follows politics obsessively (and includes virtually
everyone that reads this site). These voters know all about last week's debate
and the coverage that followed, and could respond accordingly.
The second campaign includes most of the other voters in the
Most did not follow last week's debate or the ensuing story, and most remain unengaged
in the campaign. Those that watched the morning news shows last week or glanced
at the front page of a newspaper may have seen a story or two about Senator
Clinton having a tough time in the debate, but little more. For months the main
story of the Democratic race has been about Clinton's success and dominance. If that
narrative changes in a way that persists beyond a week, we may see a small
shift in national trial-heat polls, but expect any such change to be slow and
gradual at best between now and the end of the year.
The third and most important campaign, however, is occurring
right now among voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. The same
division exists there between well informed voters and everyone else, with one
critical difference: In those two states, the candidates are spending millions
of dollars to push their messages at less attentive voters through television
advertising, direct mail and other forms of voter contact. And since candidates
are constantly campaigning in person in those states, the local news in Iowa and New
Hampshire is also covering the race much more heavily
The third campaign is the most important. It is worth
watching trends there more closely, both because voters there are now tuning
into politics, and because voters nationally typically start to pay
more attention to politics as those two states render their decisions. For
that reason, large and dramatic shifts in the national polls are far more
likely in January than they are now.
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