BREAKING: Many Americans Don’t Have Any Idea that All-Important Political Gaffes Even Happen

by John Sides on June 21, 2012 · 10 comments

in Campaigns and elections

After Obama made his comment that the “private sector was doing fine” at that press conference, Chris Cillizza defended the notion that “political gaffes matter” and wrote:

Is there anyone paying even passing attention to politics who hasn’t seen the Obama clip five times at this point — which, by the way, is less than 96 hours after he said it? Answer: no.

Jon Bernstein was dubious.  I was too.  So in a June 16-18 YouGov poll—about a week after the press conference—we asked this question:

In a press conference last week, President Obama was asked about the state of the economy. How did he describe economic growth in the private sector?

  • The private sector is doing fine.

  • The private sector is struggling.

  • The private sector is mostly the same as it was.

  •  I didn’t hear what he said.


In total, 47% of respondents gave the correct answer (“doing fine”).  Nine percent said “struggling” and 4% said “mostly the same.”  About 39% said that they had not heard.  So, in total, 53% of Americans were apparently not paying even “passing attention to politics” and thereby did not learn—much less 5 different times—what Obama had said.

Cillizza is well-aware that few people tuned into the press conference itself.  But he thinks that doesn’t matter:

First, while it is true that midday cable television viewership is low, that rationale completely disregards the media world in which we live, where even the smallest comment can be amplified into a national headline in minutes.

What this survey makes clear is that even after national headlines, some kinds of stories just don’t register to busy Americans who have more things to do than follow every jot and tittle of the news. Which is one reason why the attention devoted to gaffes dwarfs their actual impact at the ballot box.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Logan Dobson (a former student, in fact) notes that Romney’s Super-PAC and Americans for Prosperity are about to spend about $13 million combined on ads focused on Obama’s comment.  He wonders whether we will see knowledge of Obama’s comment increase, especially in battleground states.  I agreed to repeat the question in a month.  Dobson thought that the 47% figure would increase to 55-60% overall, and probably higher in battleground states.  I will report back.

{ 10 comments }

Joe U. June 21, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Great post!

Cillizza claimed that “anyone paying even passing attention to politics” has heard the president’s claim. Did the poll you conducted measure news exposure? If it didn’t, Cillizza could still be right – the 53% that couldn’t answer the claim correctly may not have been watching the news, and therefore not “paying even passing attention to politics.”

I would also ask what the baseline is. If 47 percent is familiar with the quote, that seems to me to be quite a bit. That is only 20 percent or so under expected voter turnout. To me, this seems like a high level of saturation.

The media tend to think everything that happens during a campaign is incredibly meaningful and could impact the election – the underlying assumption is that everyone is 1. paying attention, and 2. will base their decisions on this new information. Neither is the case, but for #1, SOME people are paying attention.

Steve June 21, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Do you have another knowledge question as a baseline for these respondents/is this about par for their knowledge of politics? For example, John Roberts has been Chief Justice for years and voters have had many news opportunities to learn this information. If as many people heard about the gaffe as they have John Roberts, that is impressive.

Jim June 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm

You should email Cillizza about this. He is very responsive to constructive criticism of his writing. Oh, wait. No he isn’t.

chris June 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Good post, but I am with Joe U. that this is actually a lot. When I started to read the story I thought that the number was going to be something like 25%. Also, there is a decent chance that this clip will be used in campaign advertisements by the Romney campaign, so the number of people who have heard about this may increase over the course of the campaign.

John Sides June 21, 2012 at 2:11 pm

@Joe: If we define “passing attention” as those respondents who reported being “somewhat” or “very” interested in politics, then 58% knew the correct answer. Even among the “very interested,” a substantial number (26%) did not know this. So this finding is hardly confined to people who don’t follow politics at all.

@Steve: These respondents were also interviewed in December, and in that survey 56% said that John Roberts was a “judge” when given a multiple choice question that included these responses: representative, senator, vice-president, cabinet member, judge.

@Joe and @Chris: It’s an open question whether 47% is a lot or a little. I didn’t really take a position on that above, although my tweet said “only 47%.” (And we have to keep in mind that YouGov samples are somewhat more politically knowledgeable so 47% is probably too high.) Fortunately, I don’t have to resolve this issue, because the standard I am reacting to is Cillizza’s, and I think it’s pretty clear that his post portrays the penetration of Obama’s comment as extending much more deeply into the public than it in fact has.

Wario < Mario June 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm

You should account for respondent’s guessing, which would make that number even lower.

eric June 21, 2012 at 9:43 pm

yes, sure, lots of people may have heard this and can even answer the question correctly in a survey (that’s assuming you agree that 47% is a lot, it could be). either way, the other important question is whether or not anybody really gives a damn.

Clovis June 22, 2012 at 10:58 am

Chris makes a good point about ads. I’m hearing from family that Romney (or an ally) is already running an ad in Virginia featuring the quote repeated 4 or 5 times. Perhaps his campaign will get bored and move onto another topic — but if they decide that this one’s a keeper, it’s pretty plausible that nearly every swing-state voter who owns a TV will know the quote by November.

Nadia Hassan June 22, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I think Ezra Klein’s great column on “we’re not normal” is salient here. On voters’ knowledge and awareness, I wanted to bring in some material that embodies much of what you and Lynn Vavreck say about voters’ knowledge and attention.

http://www.democracycorps.com/focus/2012/06/shifting-the-economic-narrative/

In these focus groups, voters weren’t that familiar with the in’s and out’s of the candidates and what was going on with the trail. But, their lay impressions of the economy mesh quite well with more serious analyses. You’ve argued that voters are better conceptualized as ignorant than stupid, and that’s what emerges in these focus groups.

These voters talk about treading water above, and that fits what Nate Silver wrote about Obama and the downside risk (which seems to be materializing) and one person following Obama’s 2011 State of the Union talked about how the President didn’t mention anything about the shrinking middle class, how we were still in a deficit of jobs, and he didn’t have a raise in three years. A Wells Fargo report on income growth found that underemployment and labor market slack were the reasons why income growth will not take off for several years.

I would also mention Paul Krugman’s talk about inequality and morality meshes well with the portrait of conservative pragmatism in Jacobs and Page, also borne out in focus groups.

It’s an interesting twist to the idea that voters are stupid, as Ezra notes. Maybe they’re better off not obsessing about all of the little things pundits talk about.

Ryan June 23, 2012 at 9:22 am

It helps that the mass media doesn’t repeat Obama’s gaffes over and over like they did with Bush. It’s an obvious tactic to keep him from looking like a dunce. Where as they DID want to make Bush look like a dunce.

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