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Scientific Survey Finds Voters of All Parties, Ages, and Genders Are Broadly Misinformed
By James D. Agresti
October 30, 2018

 

At a recent “get-out-the-vote” rally in Las Vegas, former first lady Michelle Obama declared that people don’t have to be informed in order to vote. All they need, she said, is to “be a citizen,” “have opinions,” and want “a say in what happens.” She emphasized, “I’ve been voting since I was 18 years old—and trust me—I didn’t know nothing about nothing at 18 years old.”

In contrast, James Madison—the father of the Constitution and primary author of the Bill of Rights—stressed that voters “must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Failure to do this, he said, will produce government that is “a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

The results of a new scientific survey indicate that voters of all ages, political parties, and genders are following Obama’s lead instead of Madison’s. Moreover, the survey shows that many voters are not only uninformed about major issues—they are positively misinformed.

Those are the findings of an annual, national poll commissioned by Just Facts, a non-profit research and educational institute. The poll was conducted by an academic research firm that used sound methodologies to assess U.S. residents who regularly vote.

While most surveys measure public opinion, this unique one measures voters’ knowledge of issues that affect their lives in tangible ways—such as education, taxes, healthcare, the national debt, pollution, government spending, Social Security, global warming, energy, and hunger. Every year, the poll includes a new question about a prevalent, controversial issue. This year, the question is about rape.

Results for All Voters

For each question, voters were offered a selection of two or more answers, one of which was true. Voters also had the opportunity to say they were unsure.

On average, voters gave the correct answer 40% of the time, gave an incorrect answer 53% of the time, and said they were unsure 7% of the time. A majority of voters gave the correct answer to only six of the 24 questions.

The highest levels of misinformation were found on questions related to child hunger, tax burdens, landfills, health insurance copayments, and Social Security finances. For these questions, 25% or less of voters provided the correct answer.

Results by Age, Gender, and Politics

The survey also recorded voters’ ages, genders, and political party preferences. This allows the poll to pinpoint segments of society that are most and least informed about specific issues.

The results show deep partisan and demographic divides, with different groups being more or less knowledgeable depending upon the questions.

In total, the rates at which voters gave the correct answers varied from a high of 47% for Republican voters to a low of 34% for Democrat voters:

  • 47% for Republican voters
  • 43% for males
  • 42% for 35 to 64 year olds
  • 41% for 18 to 34 year olds
  • 38% for 65+ year olds
  • 38% for third-party voters
  • 37% for females
  • 34% for Democrat voters

The questions, answers, full survey results and methodologies are below.

Education

Question 1: Relative to other nations, how do you believe U.S. fourth graders rank in terms of their reading and math ability? Are they in the bottom 50% or in the top 50%?

Correct Answer: Top 50%. In international tests administered to students in dozens of nations, U.S. fourth graders rank in the top 30% of nations for reading and for math. Confusion about this issue may stem from the fact that the relative performance of U.S. students declines over time, and by the age of 15, they drop to the bottom 50% in reading and to the bottom 20% in math. This suggests that the problems of the U.S. education system may occur in the later years, not the early years, as many have claimed.

Correct answer given by 44% of all voters, 42% of Democrat voters, 46% of Republican voters, 41% of third-party voters, 47% of males, 41% of females, 52% of 18 to 34 year olds, 45% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 41% of 65+ year olds.

Question 2: On average across the United States, how much do you think public schools spend per year to educate each classroom of students? Less or more than $150,000 per classroom per year?

Correct Answer: More than $150,000. The average cost to educate a classroom of public school students is about $315,000 per year. Department of Education data shows that the average inflation-adjusted spending per public school student has risen by more than three times since 1960.

Correct answer given by 33% of all voters, 20% of Democrat voters, 44% of Republican voters, 33% of third-party voters, 39% of males, 26% of females, 35% of 18 to 34 year olds, 33% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 32% of 65+ year olds.

Question 3: In your mind, what portion of 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. are unqualified for military service because of weak educational skills, poor physical fitness, illegal drug usage, medical conditions, or criminal records? More or less than half?

Correct Answer: More than half. According to various agencies within the Department of Defense, two-thirds to three-quarters of all 17- to 24-year-olds are unqualified for military service because of weak educational skills, poor physical fitness, illegal drug usage, medical conditions, or criminal records.

Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 37% of Democrat voters, 46% of Republican voters, 49% of third-party voters, 40% of males, 46% of females, 38% of 18 to 34 year olds, 45% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 40% of 65+ year olds.

Question 4: When conventional public schools are subject to school choice programs that allow students to leave for private or charter schools, do you think the children who remain in the public schools academically decline?

Correct Answer: No. At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one of the studies found neutral-to-positive results, and none of the studies found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that school choice stimulates competition that helps public schools to improve.

Correct answer given by 44% of all voters, 37% of Democrat voters, 46% of Republican voters, 49% of third-party voters, 45% of males, 41% of females, 39% of 18 to 34 year olds, 46% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 40% of 65+ year olds.

Taxes

Question 5: The average U.S. household spends about $29,000 per year on food, housing, and clothing combined. If we broke down all combined federal, state, and local taxes to a per household cost, do you think this would amount to more or less than an average of $29,000 per household per year?

Correct Answer: More than $29,000. In 2017, federal, state and local governments collected a combined total of $5.0 trillion in taxes or an average of $40,000 for every household in the U.S.

Correct answer given by 46% of all voters, 39% of Democrat voters, 50% of Republican voters, 58% of third-party voters, 47% of males, 45% of females, 58% of 18 to 34 year olds, 49% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 40% of 65+ year olds.

Question 6: On average, who would you say pays a greater portion of their income in federal taxes: The middle class or the upper 1% of income earners?

Correct Answer: The upper 1%. The Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. Treasury, and the Tax Policy Center have all documented that households in the top 1% of income pay an average effective federal tax rate of about 34%, while middle-income households pay about 13%. These tax rates account for nearly all income and federal taxes. Claims to the contrary—which are often voiced by politicians and the media—are based on misleading calculations that exclude large portions of people’s taxes and/or incomes.

Correct answer given by 22% of all voters, 9% of Democrat voters, 37% of Republican voters, 17% of third-party voters, 27% of males, 16% of females, 25% of 18 to 34 year olds, 24% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 18% of 65+ year olds.

Spending

Question 7: Now, changing the subject from taxes to spending, suppose we broke down all government spending to a per household cost—do you think the combined spending of federal, state and local governments amounts to more or less than $40,000 per household per year?

Correct Answer: More than $40,000. In 2017, federal, state and local governments spent a combined total of $6.6 trillion or an average of $52,000 for every household in the U.S. For reference, the average U.S. household spends about $44,000 per year on food, housing, clothing, transportation, and healthcare.

Correct answer given by 44% of all voters, 38% of Democrat voters, 51% of Republican voters, 35% of third-party voters, 47% of males, 40% of females, 47% of 18 to 34 year olds, 46% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 40% of 65+ year olds.

Question 8: Do you think the federal government spends more money on social programs, such as Medicare, education, and food stamps—or does the federal government spend more money on national defense, such as the Army, Navy, and missile defense?

Correct Answer: Social programs. In 2016, 63% of federal spending was for social programs, and 18% was for national defense. In 1960, the opposite was true, and 53% of federal spending was for national defense, while 21% was for social programs.

Correct answer given by 34% of all voters, 12% of Democrat voters, 60% of Republican voters, 23% of third-party voters, 37% of males, 32% of females, 28% of 18 to 34 year olds, 33% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 37% of 65+ year olds.

National Debt

Question 9: What about federal government debt? The average U.S. household owes about $122,000 in consumer debt, such as mortgages and credit cards. Thinking about all federal government debt broken down to a per household basis, do you think the average federal debt per U.S. household amounts to more or less than the average consumer debt per U.S. household?

Correct Answer: More than $122,000. Federal debt is now $21.6 trillion or $171,000 for every household in the United States. Such levels of debt can have far-reaching negative effects on wages, living standards, healthcare, and financial security.

Correct answer given by 74% of all voters, 72% of Democrat voters, 78% of Republican voters, 76% of third-party voters, 73% of males, 74% of females, 72% of 18 to 34 year olds, 78% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 67% of 65+ year olds.

Question 10: From the time that the Great Recession ended in 2009, which do you think has grown at a faster rate, the U.S. economy or the national debt?

Correct Answer: The national debt. From the time that the Great Recession ended in 2009, the national debt grew by 88%, while the U.S. economy grew by 42%.

Correct answer given by 80% of all voters, 85% of Democrat voters, 74% of Republican voters, 88% of third-party voters, 80% of males, 80% of females, 81% of 18 to 34 year olds, 79% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 81% of 65+ year olds.

Global Warming

Question 11: Would you say the earth has become measurably warmer since the 1980s?

Correct Answer: Yes. According to both satellite-measured data and ground-level thermometers, the earth’s average temperature has increased by about 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s. This increase is greater than the range of measurement uncertainty. Providing a sense of scale for this change, a temperature analysis of a glacier in Greenland found that it was about 22ºF colder during the last ice age than it is now.

Correct answer given by 67% of all voters, 95% of Democrat voters, 38% of Republican voters, 77% of third-party voters, 64% of males, 71% of females, 78% of 18 to 34 year olds, 63% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 71% of 65+ year olds.

Question 12: Again, thinking about the whole planet, do you think the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms have generally increased since the 1980s?

Correct Answer: No. Comprehensive global data shows that the number and intensity of cyclones and hurricanes has been roughly level for the past four-to-five decades. This data was originally published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in 2011 and updated this year. Likewise, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported: “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.” Various media outlets have spread false claims to the contrary by ignoring wide-ranging facts and cherry-picking timeframes, geographical locations, and the opinions of certain scientists.

Correct answer given by 30% of all voters, 6% of Democrat voters, 55% of Republican voters, 20% of third-party voters, 35% of males, 23% of females, 18% of 18 to 34 year olds, 36% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 22% of 65+ year olds.

Pollution

Question 13: Now, just thinking about the United States, in your opinion, is the air generally more polluted than it was in the 1980s?

Correct Answer: No. EPA data shows that ambient levels of all criteria air pollutants have declined significantly since the 1980s. Criteria air pollutions are those that are deemed by the administrator of the EPA to be widespread and to “cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare….” Likewise, combined emissions of hazardous air pollutants have declined by about 50% since the 1990s. Lower pollution levels can improve human health and reduce problems like learning deficits and behavioral disorders.

Correct answer given by 54% of all voters, 44% of Democrat voters, 69% of Republican voters, 42% of third-party voters, 63% of males, 44% of females, 43% of 18 to 34 year olds, 59% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 50% of 65+ year olds.

Question 14: If the U.S. stopped recycling and buried all of its municipal trash for the next 100 years in a single landfill that was 30 feet high, how much of the nation’s land area would you think this landfill would cover? Less than 1%, 1% to less than 5%, or more than 5%?

Correct Answer: Less than 1%. At the current U.S. population growth rate and the current per-person trash production rate, the landfill would cover 0.06% of the nation’s land area. More realistically, the actual area in use will be an order of magnitude smaller, because:

  • the U.S. recycles, burns, or composts 48% of its trash.
  • landfills can be more than 200 feet high.
  • after 30 to 50 years, landfills are often covered and used for purposes such as parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and airfields.

Correct answer given by 9% of all voters, 6% of Democrat voters, 13% of Republican voters, 6% of third-party voters, 12% of males, 5% of females, 5% of 18 to 34 year olds, 10% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 7% of 65+ year olds.

Energy

Question 15: Without government subsidies, which of these technologies do you think is the least expensive method for generating electricity? Wind turbines, solar panels, or natural gas power plants?

Correct Answer: Natural gas power plants. Determining the costs of electricity-generating technologies is complex, but data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that natural gas is considerably less expensive than wind, and wind is considerably less expensive than solar. Affordable energy has many important benefits, and for poorer people, it can mean the difference between life and death.

Correct answer given by 37% of all voters, 23% of Democrat voters, 53% of Republican voters, 35% of third-party voters, 46% of males, 26% of females, 41% of 18 to 34 year olds, 39% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 32% of 65+ year olds.

Question 16: Without government subsidies, which of these fuels do you believe is least expensive for powering automobiles? Gasoline, ethanol, or biodiesel?

Correct Answer: Gasoline. Data from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Energy Information Administration show that in 2017, the unsubsidized cost of ethanol was 32% more than gasoline, and the unsubsidized cost of biodiesel was 119% more than gasoline.

Correct answer given by 48% of all voters, 38% of Democrat voters, 61% of Republican voters, 31% of third-party voters, 53% of males, 41% of females, 40% of 18 to 34 year olds, 49% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 47% of 65+ year olds.

Question 17: Worldwide, which of these technologies generates the most electricity? Solar panels, natural gas power plants, coal power plants, or nuclear power plants?

Correct Answer: Coal power plants. Due to the low cost and widespread availability of coal, coal power plants generate about 40% of the world’s electricity, as compared to 22% for natural gas, 11% for nuclear, and 1% for solar.

Correct answer given by 34% of all voters, 32% of Democrat voters, 36% of Republican voters, 25% of third-party voters, 43% of males, 23% of females, 36% of 18 to 34 year olds, 37% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 29% of 65+ year olds.

Hunger

Question 18: On an average day, what portion of U.S. households with children do you believe will have at least one child who experiences hunger? Less than 1%, 1% to 10%, or more than 10%?

Correct Answer: Less than 1%. Per the latest data from the USDA, on an average day, less than one fifth of one percent (0.14%) of households with children have a child who experiences hunger. Those who claim that child hunger is more common often falsely equate the term “food insecure” with “hunger,” but most food-insecure households never experience hunger during any point of the year.

Correct answer given by 14% of all voters, 5% of Democrat voters, 24% of Republican voters, 10% of third-party voters, 17% of males, 10% of females, 11% of 18 to 34 year olds, 14% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 14% of 65+ year olds.

Social Security

Question 19: Do you think Social Security’s financial problems stem from politicians looting the program and spending the money on other programs?

Correct Answer: No. By law, all Social Security taxes and revenues can be used only for the Social Security program, and the federal government has never failed to abide by this law. What some call “looting” is actually a legal requirement (established in the original Social Security of 1935) that all of the program’s surpluses be loaned to the federal government. The government is required to pay back this money with interest, and it has been doing this since 2010. Social Security’s financial problems primarily stem from the fact that the ratio of workers paying taxes to people receiving benefits has fallen by three times since 1955 and is projected to fall further.

Correct answer given by 16% of all voters, 19% of Democrat voters, 13% of Republican voters, 12% of third-party voters, 17% of males, 14% of females, 22% of 18 to 34 year olds, 16% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 13% of 65+ year olds.

Question 20: Some policymakers are proposing that individuals be allowed to save and invest some of their Social Security taxes in personal accounts instead of paying these taxes to the Social Security program. In your view, do you think such proposals generally improve or harm the finances of the Social Security program?

Correct Answer: Improve. As shown by analyses conducted by the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration and a bipartisan presidential commission, proposals to give Social Security an element of personal ownership generally strengthen the program’s finances. Although some tax revenues that would have gone to the program instead go to people’s personal retirement accounts, these tax revenues are more than offset by the savings of not paying these individuals full benefits.

Correct answer given by 24% of all voters, 10% of Democrat voters, 37% of Republican voters, 19% of third-party voters, 27% of males, 20% of females, 31% of 18 to 34 year olds, 26% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 19% of 65+ year olds.

Health Care

Question 21: In 1960, governments paid for 24% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you think governments now pay a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.?

Correct Answer: A greater portion. In 2016, governments paid for 49% of all healthcare expenses in the United States.

Correct answer given by 55% of all voters, 43% of Democrat voters, 69% of Republican voters, 41% of third-party voters, 58% of males, 50% of females, 50% of 18 to 34 year olds, 56% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 54% of 65+ year olds.

Question 22: When health insurance copayments are high, people tend to spend less on healthcare. Do you think that this reduced spending typically has a negative impact on their health?

Correct Answer: No. Multiple studies have shown that when copayments are high, people generally spend less money on their healthcare without negatively impacting their health. This is because when people directly pay for more of their healthcare bills, they are more likely to be responsible consumers and use only those services that actually benefit their health. An exception to this rule is the poorest 6% of the population, who do experience negative effects when copayments are increased.

Correct answer given by 15% of all voters, 6% of Democrat voters, 24% of Republican voters, 10% of third-party voters, 18% of males, 12% of females, 23% of 18 to 34 year olds, 13% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 16% of 65+ year olds.

Question 23: In 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” This law uses price controls to save money in the Medicare program. Do you think these price controls will worsen Medicare patients’ access to care?

Correct Answer: Yes. As explained by Medicare’s actuaries, the price controls in the Affordable Care Act will cut Medicare prices for many medical services over the next three generations to “less than half of their level under the prior law.” The actuaries have been clear that this will likely cause “withdrawal of providers from the Medicare market” and “severe problems with beneficiary access to care.”

Correct answer given by 47% of all voters, 17% of Democrat voters, 75% of Republican voters, 56% of third-party voters, 47% of males, 47% of females, 41% of 18 to 34 year olds, 49% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 46% of 65+ year olds.

Rape

Question 24: What portion of adult females living in the U.S. say that they have been the victim of an act that fits the legal definition of rape? Less than 1%, 1% to 5%, or more than 5%?

Correct Answer: More than 5%. A nationally representative scientific survey conducted by U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 11.5% of adult females say they have been the victim of acts that constitute forcible rape. These findings are consistent with other rigorous studies. Politicians, journalists, and activists have spread a lot of misinformation about rape in general, college rape, and false allegations of rape. A detailed analysis of the latest credible data on these topics is available here.

Correct answer given by 56% of all voters, 78% of Democrat voters, 33% of Republican voters, 65% of third-party voters, 51% of males, 61% of females, 64% of 18 to 34 year olds, 57% of 35 to 64 year olds, and 51% of 65+ year olds.

Methodology and Full Results

The survey was conducted by Triton Polling & Research, an academic research firm used by scholars, corporations, and political campaigns. The responses were obtained through live telephone surveys of 1,000 likely voters across the United States during October 2–13, 2018. This sample size is large enough to accurately represent the U.S. population. Likely voters are people who say they vote “every time there is an opportunity” or in “most” elections.

The margin of sampling error for the total pool of respondents is ±3% with at least 95% confidence. The margins of error for the subsets are 5% for Democrat voters, 5% for Republican voters, 11% for third-party voters, 4% for males, 4% for females, 10% for 18 to 34 year olds, 5% for 35 to 64 year olds, and 5% for 65+ year olds.

The survey results presented in this article are slightly weighted to match the ages and genders of likely voters. The political parties and geographic locations of the survey respondents almost precisely match the population of likely voters. Thus, there is no need for weighting based upon these variables. The complete weighted and unweighted results are available here:

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