“Low information voters” and the political press

What if journalists sense that their work never reaches the voters whose inattentiveness is being exploited? What if they somehow know that voters are getting screwed but they've lost faith in their ability to do anything about it?

17 Nov 2011 3:32 pm 26 Comments

Last week, Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s policy wonk who is rapidly becoming their most valuable journalist, brought to our attention a fascinating paper by six political scientists. It’s called A Theory of Parties. I am going to take a little time here to summarize what it says:

“Parties no longer compete to win elections by giving voters the policies voters want,” they write. “Rather, as coalitions of intense policy demanders, they have their own agendas and aim to get voters to go along.”

In the United States, at least, parties are not politicians of a similar mind banding together to win elections, but “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands” that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the broader public. They “only strive to please voters when necessary to win elections.” But this constraint often doesn’t amount to much “due to voters’ lack of information about politics.” The goal, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is to “cede as little [influence] to voters as possible.” The need to win elections occasionally requires “genuine responsiveness,” but parties mainly push their own agendas and try to get voters to acquiesce.

Interest groups pushing policy demands at odds with the interests of most voters have an especially large advantage at the nomination stage of elections, the authors write. “Most citizens pay little enough attention to general elections and even less to nominations. The few who vote in primaries lack the anchoring cue of candidate partisanship, rendering them open to persuasion. Media coverage of primaries is also generally less than in general elections, further increasing the expected impact of small amounts of paid communication.”

Here is the part that intrigued me as the author of PressThink: “To explain the substantial autonomy we believe parties enjoy, we posit an ‘electoral blind spot’ within which voters do not monitor party behavior.” Through various institutional devices, like complex party rules and procedural votes that no one understands, the major parties “seek to exploit lapses in voter attentiveness” and “keep the electoral blind spot as large as possible.”

To be sure, parties must tread carefully. As V.O. Key famously argued, voters are not fools. Even the poorly informed find cues and heuristics that allow them to make sense of politics and respond with a degree of rationality. A candidate with a reputation for extremism will fare poorly among voters who lack a coherent ideology but still know they don’t like extremism. Candidates who attack popular programs like social security, or promote unpopular ones like busing to achieve racial integration of schools may likewise arouse the ire of voters not usually attentive to politics.”

“Yet, while voters can recognize and resist some kinds of extremism, our main point here is that voters, especially those who swing between parties, know dramatically little about politics. In the competitive world of elections, this makes a difference. We try to capture this difference as an “electoral blind spot” — a policy region within which aggregate electorates do not enforce preferences even when they have stakes.”

So the blind spot is where voters get screwed because they don’t know what’s going on. Far from being a problem for the two major parties, it’s actually their goal to find these spots and enlarge them. The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for the interest groups who know how the system works.

As long as parties stay within the electoral blind spot, they are effectively free to nominate any candidate they want. They have nothing to gain from further compromise, nothing to lose from sticking to their guns. In reality, however, the blind spot is neither clearly demarcated nor fixed for all time. What voters notice, or fail to notice, depends on media coverage, campaign dynamics, suddenly salient events, and how candidates express themselves. In the face of this uncertainty, parties continually test the limits of the blind spot…

This isn’t what political science normally teaches:

√ “A reader who went from our above discussion to leading textbooks on parties and elections would experience a severe disconnect. She would find no hint that parties seek, consciously or otherwise, to exploit voter inattentiveness. Her main impression from the textbook account would be that parties work very hard to win elections…”

√ “In sum, the textbook party puts office-seekers and professional staff at the center and policy demanders at the periphery. This is a much different animal than the one we have theorized, which puts the coalition of policy demanders at the center…”

√ “To posit that American politics is mainly organized by election-minded politicians, as the dominant school of American politics does, is to miss its essence. Organized combat among groups who aim to get more than their fair share of government policy is closer to the heart of the matter.”

√ “We would also agree that business groups, which pour huge amounts of cash into politics, get more than their fair share of government policy. How could it be otherwise? But numerous other groups, from Christian fundamentalists to gun advocates to environmentalists to civil rights activists, behave similarly. They differ from business in the type of resource they pour into politics: more manpower, less cash. But they are trying to do exactly what business groups try to do – pursue their policy demands, which they regard as just and fair, whether most voters agree or not.”

So that’s the theory. What if it’s right? (And I think it is right in the sense of being descriptive; so does Ezra Klein.) This would permit us to say with greater precision what the job of the political press should be: To shrink the electoral blind spot as much as it can. To prevent politicians from exploiting voter inattentiveness by paying closer attention than the voters normally do and sounding the alarm. To point out who’s trying to get “more than their fair share of government policy” and alert the electorate in watchdog fashion. To raise the costs for political actors trying to operate within the blind spot and perhaps restore some accountability to the system.

But. What if those who operate the political press don’t think they need a theory of parties in order to cover partisan politics? (After all these are intensely practical people, right?) What if “the press,” a loosely organized and fairly mindless institution to begin with, barely an institution at all, is simply unable to recognize that it already has an implicit theory of parties that is badly in need of revision?

Or, switching problems, what if political journalists sense that their work never reaches those “low information voters” whose inattentiveness is presently being exploited? What if down deep they don’t actually believe in their power to correct for the blind spot? What if they somehow sense that the voters are getting screwed but they’ve lost faith in their own ability to do anything about it? What if they have long ago accepted that the watchdog role is a myth and they’re only talking to “political junkies,” the highly informed and attentive pubic, anyway?

In all of those cases, we might expect them to retreat to something they can do. Something I have tried to give a name to: cultivating their savviness and tutoring the attentive public in that sensibility.

Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that (how will this play with the voters?) haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy, I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.

In campaign coverage, for example, nothing is more common that a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses. Or: Julia Gillard’s plan for taking Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes? Something is off there, or as I said earlier: circular. Misaligned.

The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. But we could also define it as they point at which the press reverts to savviness because engaging the broader electorate is beyond its means or intention. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for players who know how the system works.


Would pointing out “who’s trying to get ‘more than their fair share of government policy’ and alert the electorate in watchdog fashion” favor the majority (by polling) or centrist position? Doesn’t this concept of special interest influenced parties conflict with the idea of a permanent campaign based on polling? How do the structural biases support or conflict with savviness?

Insightful summation of the problem, but the solutions are vexing. TV news is akin to reality TV, and political talk radio is led by shock-jocks — to some degree because it is good for ratings and business.

The challenge is finding a news format that combines good business practice with “bottoms-up” content selection. With all of the social media analytical tools cropping up, it certainly seems doable.

“The challenge is finding a news format that combines good business practice with ‘bottoms-up’ content selection. With all of the social media analytical tools cropping up, it certainly seems doable.”

I agree. And you may see some experiments along those lines soon.

gregorylent says:

citizens are the enemies of governments

voters are the enemies of political parties

subject as object = alienation .. from everything

Will Danz says:

This is a fantastic analysis of where the country is, politically. And Mr. Rosen, thank you for your continued great work. I’ve never commented here before but I’ve been following it for years, and I think you’re right on the mark about the press, politics, and the way they connect. Bravo.

Thanks, Will.

I think there’s a direct correlation between the blind spot and the myth of centrism. The corporatists use that fuzzy region between progressive and conservative principles to posture and position themselves as being moderate, when they are nothing of the kind. They pretend not to serve any ideology when all along they serve the ideology of corporatism.

And centrism is a myth because it is based on a logical fallacy:

Trying to operate in or enlarge the blind spot calls into question the character and judgment of anyone who does it.

I love the the idea that blind spots are created because the costs of figuring something out are too high. This applies to nearly every subject and is especially true in technology.

I think we’re starting to see a new kind of educator and educational resource that is focused on lowering the cost of figuring something out through short explanations – packages of ideas that make something easy to understand.

Soon I think we’ll see more and more videos and other media that explain enough of a subject to fill a blind spot, lowering the cost to viewers to about 3 minutes of their time. That’s my dream anyway.

And I am totally behind you in that dream, Lee.

A sample of Lee’s work: RSS in plain English


Only 2 million views so far.

When are we going to get “Climae Change in Plain English,” Lee?

Michael Mann just did a talk at TEDxPSU that could be considered “Climate Change in Plain English”. The video will be up soon (I think if you follow @TEDxPSU on twitter they’ll tweet when it goes up).

@Travis Pillow- I don’t think ordinary people will be alienated by bringing the way things are actually working into light. What do public opinion polls look like when people are asked something like “special interests play too large a role in our political process” (agree/disagree) or “we need campaign finance reform” or “lobbyists rank somewhere below Jerry Sandusky on my list of favorite people”? I think people know perfectly well the game is rigged. Talking about how people make efficient use of the rigged system is better than speculating on who will win in the rigged system without commenting on how it is rigged (i.e. go ahead and talk about who bought the political party; it beats blather about ‘how will that play with voters’)

Rosen — it seems to me that this theory comports with your he-said-she-said and leaving-it-there observations about npr’s coverage of the regulation of abortion clinics in Kansas. At the time, you noted the contrast between us listeners, being left uninformed, and activists (pro-choice and pro-life alike), feeling fairly treated.

Using this political science template, then…

…we, the uninformed, live in a “blind spot” when it comes to understanding the reproductive healthcare options available to a Kansas woman seeking to avoid an unwanted pregnancy…

…while, the partisans in the abortion issue act as components of the “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands.” Their activist goal, namely to “get more than their fair share of government policy,” is advanced by increasing their clout within their respective coalitions, instead of by making our blind spot any smaller.

Thus, in their interaction with mainstream journalists, such as those at npr, these activists have a vested interest in making sure:

1.that their talking points are properly represented
2.that the dispute in question remains reassuringly symmetrical and binary to their coalition allies, and
3.that innovative ways of thinking about the issue (which might illuminate that blind spot) are delegitimized.

You account for the political press’ motives — such as its Quest for Innocence — in resorting to the type of reporting you criticize at npr. This piece of political science accounts for the motives of the journalists’ insider sources in encouraging, validating and reinforcing those same reporting techniques.

Cheers — Tyndall

As someone who covers state government, lobbying and campaign finance for a living, I think a lot of the theory laid out at the beginning and middle of the post is self-evident, but not taken seriously enough by people who write about these things.

I think the main barrier to bringing this lens into everyday coverage is that it will probably serve to alienate ordinary people even more, to explain to them what’s really going on within modern political parties, UNLESS that kind of coverage is framed around the things they already care about: what are the problems facing you, people like you, and the country as a whole, and what are candidates willing, and not willing, to do about them.

In addition to a change in perspective that’s required, that also sounds like a lot of work. I’m not writing it off or saying it’s not worthwhile. I’m saying it seems like a hell of a hill for the typical news organization to climb, especially now.

I would add that there’s a huge opportunity in here somewhere, to appeal to all the folks alienated by the current system, to cover politics from the standpoint of, “here’s why you can’t stand either political party or the bulk of politicians and the political press.”

MikeJake says:

If this theory accurately describes the state of our political system, then it seems that only those groups that can afford to buy a seat at the “intense policy demander” table matter in our system, which means that the common lament that the government disregards the will of the people is actually true.

So where’s the national debate on how best to tackle this core problem with our government: the primacy of monied interests? Why have we not proposed fundamental changes in the structure of our government to deal with this core problem rather than wishing that our government would listen to us more and bemoaning the fact that they mostly do not?

MikeJake says:

And by “fundamental changes,” I’m talking about things like term limits, publicly funded campaigns, eliminating the filibuster…changes that would probably require us to amend the Constitution.

David Kaib says:

“Most citizens pay little enough attention to general elections and even less to nominations. The few who vote in primaries lack the anchoring cue of candidate partisanship, rendering them open to persuasion. Media coverage of primaries is also generally less than in general elections, further increasing the expected impact of small amounts of paid communication.

There is something to this, but I’m not sure how much coverage during the nominations versus the general is the issue. I’d place more emphasis on the policy making stage, where the details of policy and the consequences of alternatives get discussed by the media only after policy is enacted, and before that is just game style coverage (who’s winning and losing). That makes it almost impossible for most people to have an impact on policy (unless they already know enough to seek out and understand this information with out the help of the news).

The point about text books in interesting. Textbooks in political science tend towards civics, in the sense of legitimations, rather than useful reflections of current research.

I also think (based on this description) that this overemphasizes the “those who swing between parties.” This group is pretty small, which makes it unlikely that they have that great an impact on policy.

I have to say I very much like the idea of thinking through how this approach to parties (which shares a good deal with Hacker and Pierson) connects with your work on media.

Thanks, David. For me, the starting point for that idea is that the press has a theory of parties, but it doesn’t think it needs a theory of parties. Therefore.. if it has the wrong theory of parties it won’t know it and won’t change it.

David Kaib says:

Yes, one essential element of savviness is taking what is for granted. If you take things for granted, you can’t see the need for a theory. So good to be talking about what a better theory of parties would be. I wonder what journalists’ theory of parties would look like if it was teased out.

Mr. Rosen,

After making progress in the last post, I fear you have fallen back in this one.

In post World War II America, there have always been “Low information voters,” But during the 40 years of Democratic majority in the Congress (the House) and from FDR until Ike (and then until Nixon) — no one complained about the regular voting habits of Americans.

As a politico, I live by the 40/60 rule: 40% of Americans are active from their local offices to POTUS races. The other 60% shows up after Labor Day every four years (and even then, the whole American public will never show up).

Why was it that Ezra Klein did not care about the rise of “Low Information voters,” during the Elections of 2006 and 2008?

Elections are competitions — sometimes one party wins, and sometimes they lose. Since 2000, the Left cannot understand the concept that sometimes they lose.

I trust the voters (remember, 40 years in the wilderness no Republican ever tried to change the voting laws), even when they disagree. But Democrats and their allies in the media do not.

And please, please, please, can you call out JournoList 1.0 and 2.0 — it is wrong for the media to play on the partisan battlefield, not the partisans. However, if the members of the media want to go onto the Partisan battlefield, they should be treated as Palin.

Go back to the culture war. They need you.

Mr Rosen:

I am a Social Liberterian, i do not fight the Culture wars.

However, can you address the question:

Why are there no Woodward and Bernsteins during Democratic Administrations? (i.e. Alter, Charles Pierce, Ezra Klein)

In your last column, I thought you were opening up the conversation.

I guess I was wrong.

Yes, you were wrong. I have no interest in “conversing” with you about phony controversies like Journolist, no matter important they are to the right wing. Good day.

And what is phony about the “JournoList,” that should make those of us on the Right NOT question the Media?

Multiple reporters determining the story of the day w/o transparancy? Why should we trust the NYT or WaPo that hires reporters who were involved in this?

Would CJR or MSNBC be happy if it was done Fox and WSJ?

You might not like the question — but it does exist.

Again, I keep on saying (and will as the Election gets closer, my candidates) “There are no Woodward and Bernsteins during Democratic Administrations,”

Truth to Power only extends to Republicans. Am I correct Professor Rosen?

JSF, please stop defending stupidity as a virtue.

‘Democrats are stupid, therefore it’s OK for Republicans to be stupid’ is a, um, stupid argument.

— frank

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