“Low-information voter” has been an all-purpose, bipartisan slam for the past few election cycles. But this is an election like no other, and the candidate who makes it so different is Donald Trump. His supporters have been dismissed as ignorant by political and media elites. I tried to find out whether this actually true. I ran a poll that included a quiz of factual questions, as well as opinion questions about the presidential contenders. Here’s one I tried, with a national sample of 404 Americans.
1. Where does bacon come from?
2. What sport is played in Dodger Stadium?
3. True or false: Dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus lived at the same time as early humans.
The survey presented these questions as multiple choice, but I doubt you’ll need the options. If you said, pigs, baseball, and false, you’ve scored 100 percent. You can also count yourself better informed than a third of your fellow citizens.
About 67 percent of the public get all three questions right. A quarter of Americans miss one question, and a handful flunk the quiz entirely.
I found a strong correlation between scoring poorly on this quiz and support for Trump as president. On average, those who rated Trump favorably or neutral got 2.36 questions right. Those who rated Trump unfavorably averaged 2.65 questions right. This difference was statistically significant to a compelling degree.
I was bit surprised by this given the populist subjects—bacon and baseball! Here’s a chart of the dinosaur results. It shows how many gave the wrong answer by what candidate they intended to vote for. I’ve included nonvoters and supporters of Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) for comparison, but the margin of error is very wide for the third-party candidates because so few in the survey said they would be voting for them. The difference between Trump’s and Clinton’s supporters is statistically meaningful.
OK, you might say—these are trivia facts that don’t really matter in the election. I did another nano-survey of current events and civics, choosing three questions that ought to be relevant to Trump supporters.
1. What does Vladimir Putin do for a living?
2. Which party currently has more seats in Congress?
3. Which public official nominates Supreme Court justices?
The answers are president of Russia, Republican, and the president. This quiz was another easy one, with 63 percent of the survey sample getting all three questions right. As before, those who disapproved of Trump scored much better than those who didn’t—2.45 v. 2.21 questions right on average. Also, those who supported Hillary Clinton were much better informed than those who disapproved of Clinton (2.55 v. 2.28 questions right). Both were statistically strong findings.
I also tried a quiz combining politics and trivia, throwing in a few moderately tougher questions like identifying what “TPP” stands for and saying what continent Ukraine is in. (Correct answers are Trans-Pacific Partnership and Europe.) Again Trump supporters scored the lowest.
Without doubt some of this reflects the demographic shifts of the 2016 campaign. In a reversal of historic patterns, a Republican candidate is winning support of men without college degrees, while college graduates strongly favor the Democrat. But it’s not just a matter of formal education. In my book Head in the Cloud, I report a survey on support for a U.S.—Mexico border wall (it didn’t mention Trump). I found a strong correlation between support for the border wall and low scores on a set of 16 general knowledge questions. The questions included locating North Carolina on an U.S. map and knowing which came first, Judaism or Christianity.
You’d expect that people with less education would know less. I found something more remarkable. Even when you factor out educational level and age, those who couldn’t answer the general knowledge questions were more likely to support a border wall. It’s not just that border wall supporters are less educated. They know less, compared to others of the same educational level.
What does this tell us? I suspect it means that those lacking in broad knowledge are less able to think for themselves. They relate to people, not facts. When they find a leader they trust, one who speaks to their concerns, they tend to believe that leader’s campaign promises.
The more knowledgeable are better able to evaluate those promises. They may know, for instance, that the U.S.—Mexico border is about 2,000 miles long and that this bears on the cost of construction and upkeep. They know something about the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China, and that neither were ultimately effective in keeping out the forces of “globalism.” The knowledgeable span parties, but they recognize that effective policy is a matter of facts as well as ideology. They understand that the feasibility of novel campaign promises is something to be demonstrated, not taken on faith.
We like to think it’s less important to know facts these days because we can look them up on our phones. The catch is that the people who could most benefit from looking up facts often don’t try. That’s another reason why 2016 is an election like no other—and a discomforting vision of the future.