Sunday, October 9, 2011

Prejudice and Ignorance: The American Idiocracy

There are two kinds of polls about politics: the ones about which candidate we prefer and the ones about more fundamental underlying attitudes. The former are, at this point (relative to the 2012 election) somewhere south of useless. Want proof? Well, take a look at the Gallup poll taken on October 12-14, 2007: Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by a 50-21 margin; Rudy Giuliani led Fred Thompson 32-18, with John McCain at 14%. Importantly, neither Clinton nor Giuliani (nor Thompson, for that matter) made any enormous gaffes that made them instantly less popular with either major donors or the electorate: no Howard Dean screech, for example. Their only problem was that they didn’t attract enough support when it counted as the other guy did. So I really don’t care who won what straw poll or who is October’s flavor of the month on the Republican side: things won’t get interesting until after Thanksgiving, at least, even if the mad rush to move the primary season earlier continues unabated.

The other kind of poll, however, always interests me in that it gives us a glimpse of who we are. If the polling sample is broad-based enough, and most of the prominent pollsters know what they’re doing in that regard, at least, then any specific incident that would affect the results would be known by everyone and could be factored into the analysis. In other words, our collective view of Muslims changed significantly the second week of September, 2001, but everyone knew why. Some individual’s view may have been changed by a more local incident a couple of weeks earlier or later, but that single re-evaluation wouldn’t affect the overall poll numbers much.

So, let’s look at two polls I read about this week. The first was actually taken this summer, but I hadn’t seen it until reading about it in a piece by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy. A Gallup poll taken in June shows attitudes towards hypothetical candidates. Here’s the question:
Between now and the 2012 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates—their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [black, a woman, etc.], would you vote for that person?
Lydia Saad, who wrote up the results, seems most interested in whether people would vote for a Mormon: reasonable enough, given the fact that Mitt Romney is a front-runner for the GOP nomination. I confess that I’m a little more intrigued by the remarkably low numbers, even now, for gays/lesbians and atheists. True, the trend line for those groups is heading in the right direction, but that 49% wouldn’t support a well-qualified atheist candidate of their own party is kind of scary. Of course, there is a not insignificant contingent in the Republican party in particular which clings to a pseudo-Christian dogma—justifying prejudice in the name of the Bible, declaring a desire to help the poor as “socialist”—so one suspects those numbers are skewed. Unfortunately, I can’t find any further break-outs of that information, although Saad does provide some with respect to Mormons… more on that in a moment.

The linked pdf file (alas, I can’t seem to link to it directly) shows trend lines—atheists were opposed 18-77 in 1958, and are 49-49 now; blacks were opposed 37-53 in 1958, and are 94-5 now; gays/lesbians weren’t part of the discussion until 1978, when they were opposed 26-66 as compared to 67-32 today. The trends are interesting. If we look at the numbers in plus-minus terms (50-40 is +10, 30-70 is -40, and so on), we see a more or less steady increase in acceptability for some groups. Blacks, for example, are -16 in 1958, +25 in 1965, +46 in 1971, +66 in 1987, +89 today. Women are at -31 in 1937, +8 in 1955, +50 in 1975, +70 in 1987, and +87 today.

Not all the trends look that way, however. Whereas gays/lesbians were at -40 in 1978 and are at +35 today, there was a huge jump from 1983 (-35) to 1999 (+22) and actual back-sliding from then until 2007 (+15) before another surge to the present. Atheists made good progress from 1958 (-57) to 1983 (-9), but then stalled, making it to +1 in 1999 and actually losing that margin-of-error point since then.

Of course, there are also glitches caused by individual candidates: a Democrat asked about female or African-American candidates in the last election cycle or a Republican asked about a Mormon would have been forgiven for transposing the question from the general to the specific: would you vote for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney if that person were nominated by your party? Hence the trend line for Mormons goes a little berserk four years ago. And, of course, the John Kennedy phenomenon with respect to Catholics causes its own set of ripples. Today, interestingly, although all of these groups tend to lean more to the Democrats than to the Republicans, there’s at least some chance that a woman (Michele Bachmann) or an African-American (Herman Cain) could be the GOP nominee, and of course Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, is likely to become a contender in years to come. We’ll see if people are lying, because, you know… they do, sometimes.

Anyway, revenons aux nos moutons. Attitudes towards Mormons are broken out further than for other groups in the article. Unsurprisingly, increased education also leads to increased tolerance for the Other, however that Other is defined. Thus, college graduates are at +74, those with some college are at +59, those with no college are at only +35. Significantly, there seems to be little if any difference between men and women, or among age groups or geographical locations. Everything is either within the margin of error or pretty close to it. It might be worth mentioning that Catholics give Mormons a +64 vs. a +51 from “Protestants and other Christians” [whatever that means]. Then again, it might not.

I was intrigued, however, by the fact that Republicans are a little more open-minded towards Mormons than Democrats are. That wouldn’t have been what I predicted, but it makes sense when I think about it. First off, with two prominent Republicans—Romney and Jon Huntsman—both in Presidential bids, anyone who supports either, and they are the two most mainstream candidates, is reminded that maybe they could support a Mormon. Conversely, name a prominent Mormon Democrat. (Yes, I know, Harry Reid, but that connection isn't made very often.) Mormons tend to be Republicans (see, for example, this poll in which President Obama’s approval ratings are shown to be about 20 points lower, in good times and bad, among Mormons than among the general population). And, of course, the LDS Church has figured prominently in the campaign against gay marriage, dumping literally millions of dollars (directly and indirectly) and thousands of volunteer hours on Proposition 8 in California, for example: enough so that a New York Times headline says that “Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage.” That might not be enough to win them friends among Republicans, but it isn’t difficult for a Democrat to be rather more disinclined to support a Mormon after that bitter (if transient) defeat.

Anyway, bottom line: I don’t think Mitt Romney (or, rather more hypothetically, John Huntsman) would be hurt significantly by religion. Only 18% of Republicans and 19% of Independents show reluctance to vote for a Mormon, and one suspects those numbers will drop, just as the numbers for a host of other groups have dropped with greater visibility and knowledge: especially for the not terribly well educated, it’s easier to fear the unknown than to fear Mitt Romney.

Besides, a fair number of voters won’t know he’s Mormon, anyway. The ignorance of the American electorate is terrifying. There’s a statement virtually everyone will agree with, as precious few folks voted for the winner in both of the last two Presidential elections… presumably somebody did, but Democrats are even more convinced that George W. Bush was the worst President in American history than Republicans are that Barack Obama is.

But it’s probably even worse than you thought. A recent Pew Research poll reveals that nearly half of Americans and fully a third of Republicans can’t name, unprompted, a single GOP candidate for President. Only three—Romney (27%), Rick Perry (28%), and Michele Bachmann (15%)—reached double-digits in the general population. Even among Republicans (and Independents who lean Republican), only Perry and Romney were named by 1 in 5 respondents. I guess the good news is that the magical 10% mark was passed by all the candidates currently given any real chance to win the nomination: the two front-runners, Bachmann, Cain, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich (not that anyone currently considers Gingrich a legitimate contender for the nomination). All of which makes for a bad day for the likes of Rick Santorum, who could be named by only 4% of Republicans as even being a candidate; Jon Huntsman did only half that well, despite a well-publicized roll-out. Even more frighteningly, if you add up all the numbers, you get an average of less than one candidate recognition per respondent among the general population: all the numbers add up to exactly 100%, but that figure includes Chris Christie and Sarah Palin, both of whom have said they’re not in the race.

Think about that. 46% can’t name anyone. That means the remaining 54% average (if we drop Palin and Christie) average less than 1.8 apiece. Let’s say there’s 1 in 100 who are the same kind of political junkie that I am (and I’m not exactly a fanatic) and could name eight candidates (I’m kicking myself that I had to be reminded of Gary Johnson’s name). And let’s say that another 5% can name the two front-runners and the three others who have won a straw poll already. That leaves only 64 identifications to split among 48 people. In other words, if another 8% of the population can name only Perry, Romney and Bachmann, then we get this:
1% can name 8 candidates.
5% can name 5 candidates
8% can name 3 candidates
40% can name 1 candidate
46% can’t name any candidates
This strikes me as a reasonable breakdown, given the numbers we have to work with… which means that 86% of the American population can’t name more than a single Republican Presidential candidate. Wow.

Republicans, of course, do a little better—it’s their party’s candidates we’re talking about, after all. They came up with 132 identifications per 100 respondents, with “only” (shudder) 34% who couldn’t name anyone. That works out to exactly two identifications per Republican who could name a candidate. Again, figure 1% at 8, 5% at 5, and we’re still at only about 13% at 3, and another 13% at 2, leaving 34% at 1. In other words, roughly two-thirds of Republicans can’t name more than one GOP contender.

So before anyone in any of the candidates’ camps starts crowing about leading in this or that poll, or winning this or that straw poll, or scoring points in this or that debate, there’s this to consider: the American electorate’s ignorance of the field is mind-boggling in its scope. If they can’t even name a couple of options, how can they hope to know whose policies they like (or don’t)? The answer is obvious: they can’t. The manifold failures of the media are partially responsible for all this, of course, but, in the words of the great sage Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.

I have a fond hope that the situation may change by the time votes actually count for something in the primary season, or at least by the general election. I get that way sometimes… it’s probably indigestion.

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