October 16 2012
Carrie L. Lukas
Political handicappers make it sound as if demography is destiny when it comes to which policies and candidates people support. Women are presumed to support Democrats; men to favor Republicans. Young Americans vote for liberals, while seniors go conservative. Voters in Southern states are reliably red; the coasts and Northeast are blue. Yet new research suggests that another factor powerfully affects one’s policy and political preferences: One’s awareness of basic truths about the U.S. economy.
The Independent Women’s Voice, an educational advocacy organization, has been researching the relationship between economic literacy and support for policy ideas. Most recently, IWV commissioned a study in Colorado, which began with a baseline survey of 800 Independents to test their knowledge about key economic facts. Ten days later, following an educational initiative by IWV’s 501(c)(3) affiliate, Independent Women’s Forum, another survey tested whether people had become more knowledgeable about those economic facts, and if so, what impact this knowledge had on their political preferences.
For example, here’s a fact: The five percent of Americans with the highest incomes pay almost 60 percent of all federal income taxes. You can find the complete breakdown of income tax payments by income at the nonpartisan Tax Foundation and National Taxpayers Union, and a more detailed discussion at the Congressional Budget Office.
Yet when asked if that statement about top five percent of taxpayers was true or false, the 800 Independent Coloradans were about equally divided on its veracity. The differences in political preferences between the two group were dramatic: 60 percent of those who failed to identify the statement as true support President Obama (who is associated in the public mind with wanting more taxes on the wealthy and more government spending), compared to just 27 percent who support Gov. Romney (an effective placeholder for not raising taxes and shrinking the size of government). Sixty-six percent of those who knew the statement was true support Gov. Romney compared to 26 percent for President Obama.
This pattern held true with other facts. The U.S. national debt today exceeds $16 trillion, a fact one can confirm at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget or the U.S. National Debt Clock. Those who correctly identified this statement as true support Gov. Romney over President Obama 53-35, and those who thought it was false support President Obama 63-27. These findings confirm a 2010 study by Douglas Schoen for IWV of Independent voters nationally which showed a consistent relationship between those who correctly answered basic economic questions and support for limited government and free markets.
Most interestingly, IWV’s latest research suggests that there isn’t just a correlation between one’s knowledge of economic facts and policy preferences, but that educating someone about those key facts can lead them to re-evaluate their support.
First, IWV’s survey showed that IWF’s education campaign highlighting 10 key economic facts succeeded in expanding the share of Independents that correctly identifies which statements are true and false. After the one-week educational campaign, consisting of mailers, phone quizzes, and internet outreach to 20,000 Independent Coloradoans, the share of those who got the answers right increased by an average of 8 percent.
For example, initially 47 percent of respondents knew that the unemployment rate is 14.7 percent when those who had given up looking for work and those who have part-time jobs but want full-time positions are included. Ten days later, among those who had received IWF’s educational outreach, 63 percent knew this fact (compared to 54 percent for those in the control group). Such a profound impact is particularly noteworthy given the timing of the educational effort—in the midst of a heated presidential campaign in a swing state being bombarded with policy and political correspondence.
While voters were gaining an education on these core economic facts, voters’ preferences for candidates also shifted. Initially, Mitt Romney led President Obama among those surveyed by 2 percentage points. After IWF’s educational messaging, IWV found that Gov. Romney’s lead had increased by 8 percentage points among those who had received the educational information compared to a 2 point increase among the control group that had not.
Note that none of the educational outreach had mentioned President Obama, Governor Romney, any candidate for office, nor even the upcoming election. Indeed, the Presidential ballot question merely serves as the most effective proxy for measuring people’s support for different economic agendas. Those who support President Obama generally believe that greater government spending and higher tax rates on high earners is the best prescription for the economy, while those supportive of Governor Romney favor less government and lower taxes.
It turns out that what you know may be a better predictor than who you are when it comes to policy and political preferences. The good news for those who support limited government is that the more voters know about economic facts, the more conservative they become.