Notes on the "Average Voter"

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 19, 2010

Notes on the "Average Voter"

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Paul Krugman's excellent column today makes a point that readers of this blog will be familiar with: The economy is mostly to blame for Obama's mediocre approval ratings. Therefore the punditry's excessive focus on things like whether the president is "too remote" or " too disengaged" is silly. However, Krugman is much too forgiving of average voters:

Unfortunately, however, the evidence suggests that issues don’t matter either, in part because voters are often deeply ill informed. Suppose, for example, that you believed claims that voters are more concerned about the budget deficit than they are about jobs. (That’s not actually true, but never mind.) Even so, how much credit would you expect Democrats to get for reducing the deficit?

None. In 1996 voters were asked whether the deficit had gone up or down under Bill Clinton. It had, in fact, plunged — but a plurality of voters, and a majority of Republicans, said that it had risen. There’s no point berating voters for their ignorance: people have bills to pay and children to raise, and most don’t spend their free time studying fact sheets. Instead, they react to what they see in their own lives and the lives of people they know. Given the realities of a bleak employment picture, Americans are unhappy — and they’re set to punish those in office. [Italics Mine]

There are certainly voters who work multiple jobs while feeding multiple children, and probably do not have time to educate themselves about politics. And a number of political issues--particularly economic issues--are very hard to understand, even if you do spend time reading up on them. But when you live in a democracy, there are very few good excuses for not having minimal knowledge about what is going on in the world. How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11? Now ask yourself how much time the average American spends watching mediocre television. Voters can choose to be ignorant or disinterested, but that choice is fundamentally their own.

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posted in: jonathan chait, clinton, isaac chotiner, paul krugman

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