Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Does What People Know Matter?

Scholars have long argued that political knowledge matters.  The more folks know, the more likely they are to participate in politics, to vote, and to make ideologically consistent choices.  In other words, the more people know, the better they participate in a democracy.

Here's a study that looks at the question in a slightly different way.  Unfortunately I don't have access to the complete study, at least not online, so we're forced to operate from the abstract.  From what I read there is probably some sophisticated modeling going on, so maybe it's good I can't read the entire piece.  Still, read the following:
Simulations of hypothetical electorates under different assumptions about the distribution of political knowledge show that while some citizens would change their votes if more knowledgeable, the primary effects of increasing voter knowledge is to raise turnout levels and to solidify preexisting vote tendencies. The few vote changes that result from increased political knowledge largely average out in aggregation. 
In other words, the models suggest a more informed electorate wouldn't change how people vote but it would change how often they vote.  That's good news -- if we could wave a magic wand and make people more knowledgeable.  Too bad a sizable chunk of the electorate has tuned out of the news.  We'd need that magic wand to improve the electorate.  That, and perhaps better quality news.

And then there's this:
Increased turnout resulting from a more informed electorate, however, favors Democratic candidates in two of the four studied elections. 
On the surface this seems at odds with the quote above.  Not necessarily so, depending on how they modeled the data.  It just suggests that a hunk of the electorate that doesn't vote but would be motivated to do so if suddenly more knowledgeable would tend to vote Democratic.  This makes sense to anyone who has spent time deeply analyzing election data or just time spent as a journalist covering elections.

So Democrats, especially, would love to lay their hands on that magic wand.

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