Poll Reveals Voters Misinformed About Key Issues

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Chicago (for bibliographies)
Agresti, James D. “Poll Reveals Voters Misinformed About Key Issues.” Just Facts. March 14, 2014. https://www.justfactsdaily.com/poll-reveals-voters-misinformed-about-key-issues/.

By James D. Agresti
December 20, 2013
Correction appended

What do voters truly understand about public policy issues? To scientifically measure this, Just Facts, a non-profit research and educational institute, commissioned a nationwide poll of people who say that they vote “every time there is an opportunity” or in “most elections.” The poll consisted of 20 questions, one concerning voters’ political leanings and 19 dealing with their knowledge of public policy issues.

The questions were designed to identify disconnects between perception and reality across the political spectrum. Covering a wide range of issues, the poll consisted of questions about government spending, the national debt, taxes, healthcare, hunger, global warming, pollution, energy, and Social Security. Each question focused on a central aspect of each issue. For example, voters were asked:

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?

The poll found deep partisan divides, with both Democrats and Republicans being relatively more or less knowledgeable depending upon the questions. Overall, a majority of voters gave the correct answer to only four of the questions, such as these:

Over the past 5 years, which has grown at a faster rate, the U.S. economy or the national debt? (Correct answer given by 87% of all voters.)

In 1960, governments paid for 24% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you think government now pays a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.? (Correct answer given by 57% of all voters.)

Conversely, two examples of questions that voters seldom answered correctly are:

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 given by 18% of all voters.)

On an average day, what portion of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger? Less than 1%, 1% to less than 10%, 10% to less than 20%, or more than 20%? (Correct answer given by 9% of all voters.)

On average, all voters answered 39% of the questions correctly. Separating voters into subgroups, those who said they would probably vote for a Democrat if the U.S. presidential election were held today got an average of 30% correct, probable Republican voters got 45% correct, probable third-party voters got 41% correct, and undecided voters got 39% correct. All of the questions, results, and correct answers are provided below.

Although journalists, commentators, politicians, educators, and advocacy groups regularly inundate Americans with information about public policy issues, this poll provides evidence that voters are often ill-informed and may be casting their ballots based upon misconceptions. Just Facts works to improve this situation by empowering voters with verifiable facts that help them to make truly informed decisions.
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This is the second annual poll of voter knowledge commissioned by Just Facts. The poll was conducted by Conquest Communications Group, a professional polling firm. The results were obtained through live telephone surveys of 500 likely voters across the continental United States on December 16, 2013.

The margin of sampling error for all voters is +/- 4.5% with a 95% level of confidence. The margin of error for Republican voters is +/- 7.3%, for Democratic voters is +/- 8.3%, for undecided voters is 9.8%, and for third-party voters is 13.0%.

Question 1: The average U.S. household spends about $25,000 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 $25,000 per household per year?

Correct Answer: Taxes are more than $25,000 per household per year. In 2012, federal, state and local governments collected a combined total of $3.997 trillion in taxes or an average of $33,006 for every household in the U.S. Correct answer given by 39% of all voters, 35% of Democratic voters, 38% of Republican voters, 51% of third-party voters, and 40% of undecided voters.

Question 2: 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% of income earners. Per the Congressional Budget Office’s latest estimates of federal tax burdens, households in the middle 20% of the U.S. income distribution paid an average federal tax rate of 11.5%, as compared to 29.4% for the top 1% of income earners. Correct answer given by 18% of all voters, 4% of Democratic voters, 31% of Republican voters, 8% of third-party voters, and 20% of undecided voters.

Question 3: 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: Government spending is more than $40,000 per household per year. In 2012, federal, state and local governments spent a combined total of $5.788 trillion or an average of $47,802 for every household in the U.S. Correct answer given by 46% of all voters, 37% of Democratic voters, 48% of Republican voters, 54% of third-party voters, and 52% of undecided voters.

Question 4: 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 2010 (later data not available), 61% of federal spending was on social programs, versus 22% for national defense. Half a century ago, the opposite was true, and 53% of federal spending was for national defense, versus 23% on social programs. Correct answer given by 41% of all voters, 18% of Democratic voters, 58% of Republican voters, 49% of third-party voters, and 36% of undecided voters.

Question 5: What about federal government debt? The average U.S. household owes about $107,000 in consumer debt, such as mortgages and credit cards. Thinking about all federal government debt broken down on a per household basis, do you think federal debt amounts to more or less than $107,000 per U.S. household?

Correct Answer: Federal debt is more than $107,000 per household. As of December 2, 2013, the federal debt was $17.2 trillion or $140,741 for every household in the U.S. Correct answer given by 65% of all voters, 48% of Democratic voters, 75% of Republican voters, 78% of third-party voters, and 62% of undecided voters.

Question 6: Over the past five years, which has grown at a faster rate, the U.S. economy or the national debt?

Correct Answer: The national debt. Over the past five years, the national debt grew by 62%, while the U.S. economy grew by 14%. Correct answer given by 87% of all voters, 70% of Democratic voters, 97% of Republican voters, 92% of third-party voters, and 89% of undecided voters.

Question 7: Would you say the earth is generally warmer than it was 30 years ago, cooler than it was 30 years ago, or about the same?

Correct Answer: Warmer. According to satellite measurements and ground-level thermometers, the earth’s average temperature has increased over the past 30 years by about 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit. For context regarding the magnitude of this change, a temperature analysis of a glacier in Greenland found that the location was about 22ºF colder during the last ice age than it is now. Correct answer given by 45% of all voters, 74% of Democratic voters, 23% of Republican voters, 46% of third-party voters, and 46% of undecided voters.

Question 8: Again, thinking about the whole planet, do you think the number and intensity of  hurricanes and tropical storms have increased over the past 30 years, decreased over the past 30 years, or stayed about the same?

Correct Answer: About the same. Data published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that the number and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms is about the same as it was 30 years ago. Likewise, Christopher Landsea, a Ph.D. atmospheric scientist and hurricane specialist for NOAA, wrote in 2005, “All previous and current research in the area of hurricane variability has shown no reliable, long-term trend up in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, either in the Atlantic or any other basin.” Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2012: “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.” Correct answer given by 41% of all voters, 23% of Democratic voters, 54% of Republican voters, 42% of third-party voters, and 42% of undecided voters.

Question 9: Now, just thinking about the United States, in your opinion, is the air generally more polluted than it was 30 years ago, less polluted, or about the same?

Correct Answer: Less polluted. Per EPA data, levels of criteria air pollutants have declined significantly over the past 30 years. The same is true for emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Correct answer given by 33% of all voters, 28% of Democratic voters, 41% of Republican voters, 32% of third-party voters, and 27% of undecided voters.

Question 10: If the U.S. stopped recycling and buried all of its trash for the next 100 years in a single landfill that was 30 feet high, how much of the nation’s land area would this 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 0.05% of the nation’s land area. More realistically, the actual area in use will be an order of magnitude smaller, because (1) the U.S. recycles 26% of its trash, burns 12% of it for energy, and composts 8% of it; (2) landfills can be more than 200 feet high; and (3) landfills have an average lifecycle of about 30-50 years, after which they are covered and used for purposes such as parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and airfields. Correct answer given by 7% of all voters, 4% of Democratic voters, 11% of Republican voters, 3% of third-party voters, and 4% of undecided voters.

Question 11: Without government subsidies, which of these technologies is least expensive 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. Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 34% of Democratic voters, 54% of Republican voters, 34% of third-party voters, and 42% of undecided voters.

Question 12: Without government subsidies, which of these fuels is least expensive for powering automobiles? Gasoline, ethanol, or biodiesel?

Correct Answer: Gasoline. As calculated with data from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Energy Information Administration, without federal subsidies, the average nationwide retail price for ethanol in 2013 was 22% more than gasoline, and biodiesel was 41% more than gasoline. Correct answer given by 46% of all voters, 35% of Democratic voters, 57% of Republican voters, 44% of third-party voters, and 44% of undecided voters.

Question 13: 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 produced 40% of the world’s electricity in 2010. Correct answer given by 43% of all voters, 35% of Democratic voters, 49% of Republican voters, 39% of third-party voters, and 45% of undecided voters.

Question 14: On an average day, what portion of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger? Less than 1%, 1% to less than 10%, 10% to less than 20%, or more than 20%?

Correct Answer: Less than 1%. Per U.S. Census Bureau data, on an average day, less than one fifth of one percent (0.18%) of households with children have a child who experiences hunger. Correct answer given by 9% of all voters, 6% of Democratic voters, 13% of Republican voters, 8% of third-party voters, and 5% of undecided voters.

Question 15: Some people say that Social Security faces financial problems because politicians have looted the program and spent the money on other programs.  Do you believe that statement is true or false?

Correct Answer: False. By law, all Social Security income can be used only for the Social Security program. Since the outset of Social Security, the law has required that all of the program’s surpluses be loaned to the federal government, but the law also requires that the federal government pay back this money with interest, and the federal government has never failed to do this. Social Security faces financial problems not because it has been looted but because of other factors such as (1) increases in life expectancy without a comparable increase in the retirement age; (2) the higher birth rate of the baby boom generation compared to other generations, and (3) the increasing number of people receiving disability benefits. Correct answer given by 19% of all voters, 37% of Democratic voters, 10% of Republican voters, 14% of third-party voters, and 15% of undecided voters.

Question 16: 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 evidenced 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 are generally structured to 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 25% of all voters, 11% of Democratic voters, 35% of Republican voters, 30% of third-party voters, and 23% of undecided voters.

Question 17: In 1960, governments paid for 24% of all healthcare costs in the U.S. Do you think government now pays a greater portion or a lesser portion of all healthcare costs in the U.S.?

Correct Answer: A greater portion. Between 1960 and 2009, the portion of U.S. healthcare expenses paid by government increased from 24% to 48%. Correct answer given by 57% of all voters, 45% of Democratic voters, 64% of Republican voters, 59% of third-party voters, and 59% of undecided voters.

Question 18: When health insurance copayments are high, people tend to spend less on healthcare. Does this reduced spending typically have a negative impact on people’s 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 16% of all voters, 10% of Democratic voters, 20% of Republican voters, 19% of third-party voters, and 15% of undecided voters.

Question 19: 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 affect 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 program’s 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 64% of all voters, 32% of Democratic voters, 83% of Republican voters, 73% of third-party voters, and 71% of undecided voters.

The poll results for all voters are available here, and the results broken down by political preferences, age, and gender are available here.

Correction (3/14/2014): This article originally stated that without federal subsidies, ethanol and biodiesel were respectively 42% and 64% more expensive than gasoline. As shown in the corrected article above, these figures are actually 22% and 41%.

11 thoughts on “Poll Reveals Voters Misinformed About Key Issues

  1. Your question and answer about Social Security being “looted” is only technically correct and does not take into account devaluation of the dollar through borrowing; giving up our “commanding heights” to global competition; inflation (now bordering on deflation); emasculation of the middle class; and a host of other policies and programs that make the Social Security program an unsustainable ponzi scheme. The CBO projections support my assertion.
    I do follow your posts closely and I am in awe of your grasp of the facts. No reply required.
    Very Respectfully,
    Ray

    • Larger samples are certainly preferable, but it is expensive to conduct a poll with this much content and depth. Thus, financial constraints limited the sample size. However, the margins of error are all clearly presented, and even if these margins were pushed to their limits, the results are still highly instructive.

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  3. I have to look askance at your “correct answer” for Question 7. A range of increase in temperature of 0.6 to 0.9 deg. F. over 30 years is not what I would term climatically significant. At the very least, an answer of “about the same” deserves equal credit, and scoring it that way would practically erase the response difference between Democrats and Republicans.

    • Excellent point, Terry. I would also point out that .9 degrees barely exceeds the margin of error for such measurements (which is estimated at 0.7 degrees C). Also, “about the same” is perfectly within the margin of error, as I challenge anyone to walk into a room and tell me whether it is 71.5 degrees F or 72.5 degrees F.

      • Whether or not this increase is “climatically significant” is somewhat subjective, and as I mentioned, “a temperature analysis of a glacier in Greenland found that the location was about 22ºF colder during the last ice age than it is now.”

        However, looking at the charts in the links I provided, one can clearly see this is a palpable increase.

        Whether or not this increase is significant from a long-term perspective is contestable, and I have extensively researched this matter here: http://www.justfacts.com/globalwarming.asp#global-proxies

        Also, as documented in the first link I provided for Question 7, the accuracy of satellite-derived temperatures for the lower troposphere is about ±0.18ºF (0.1ºC) over 30+ years.

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  7. I have problems with questions 13 and 14 I stopped reading after that btw.
    For 13 it kind of felt like which one of these would create more energy I’m no scientist so I guessed at nuclear being the most effective way to create energy. I read the answer though and you were answering a totally different question.
    For 14 the obvious answer is like what a good 50 percent of children feel hungry every day. They swim, run, sports and maybe their’s nothing good to eat. Suffering from starvation is totally different than being hungry. Are these all trick questions?
    Even 10 that was like if we didn’t recycle how much land would the trash take up except gotcha in the answer we accounted for recycling.
    I’m not the brightest light bulb out there and I’m no mind reader.

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