Americans Fail Simple News Test

A new Live Science survey of Americans’ political knowledge found what all such surveys find:  Most people know very little about world affairs.

The survey, conducted between April 30 and June 1 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, measured the political knowledge of 3,612 U.S. adults. Participants were asked to name the controlling party of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. secretary of state and Great Britain’s prime minister.

Overall, just 18 percent of participants answered all three questions correctly.

More than 50 percent of Americans knew that the Democrats have a majority in the House, while 42 percent could identify the secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice). Less than 30 percent could name the prime minister of Great Britain (Gordon Brown).

One wonders why it took four months to compile and release the survey results.  Otherwise, I’m not particularly troubled by the findings.

In addition to the fact that we have decades worth of research telling us that most people lack detailed knowledge of this kind of trivia but that they have a decent grasp of the bigger picture items, they didn’t do all that badly.  The Democrats had only been in control of the House for fifteen months or so and the presidential campaign reinforces the idea that the Republicans, under Dictator George W. Bush, are in charge.

It’s not all that embarrassing that two thirds of the country don’t know who Gordon Brown is.  After all, as the same report notes, “Just 44 percent of BBC viewers identified the prime minister correctly. ”  Now that’s embarrassing.

In other shocking news, we find that people did much better on this quiz if they are college graduates and regularly read or follow political news.  People who read particularly highbrow public affairs magazines do superbly well across the board whereas those who listen to or watch partisan debate or comedy shows do better on domestic affairs:

  • The New Yorker/Atlantic: 71 percent (correctly identified Democrats as the majority in the House), 71 percent (correctly identified Condeleeza Rice), 59 percent (correctly identified Gordon Brown)
  • NPR: 73 percent, 72 percent, 57percent
  • Hannity & Colmes: 84 percent, 73 percent, 49 percent
  • Rush Limbaugh: 83 percent, 71 percent, 41 percent
  • Colbert Report: 73 percent, 65 percent, 49 percent
  • Daily Show: 65 percent, 48 percent, 36 percent
  • NewsHour: 66 percent, 52 percent, 47 percent
  • O’Reilly Factor: 70 percent, 60 percent, 41 percent
  • C-SPAN: 63 percent, 59 percent, 35 percent
  • Letterman/Leno: 51 percent, 42 percent, 31 percent
  • CNN: 59 percent, 48 percent, 29 percent
  • National Enquirer: 44 percent, 32 percent, 22 percent

I bet the Enquirer readers would be able to name John Edwards’ love child, though.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    If I had to get Brown’s first name I would’ve been in trouble, otherwise I knew the answers.

    But then I guess the really anomaly would be anyone who reads political blogs that didn’t get all three right.

  2. Here are three better questions:

    1. Name the person third in line to be President.

    2. Name the Premier of the People’s Republic of China.

    3. Within $1 trillion dollars, what is the national debt?

    Or we can just revert to the three questions asked at the Bridge of Death.

  3. just me says:

    I knew all three.

    I think the breakdown by type of media is interesting, but I wonder if that has any meaning. If I was asked to identify where I get my political or any news, I wouldn’t be able to pick just one. I don’t really watch anything on TV though-at least not political stuff.

  4. Michael says:

    1.) Nancy Pelosi (Condi Rice is #4, I think)

    2.) Hu (I have no idea how to spell the last name) Jintao?

    3.) I think it just rolled past the $10 Trillion mark, didn’t it?

    As for the actual report, I find it curious that the Colbert Report viewers did so much better than the Daily Show viewers.

  5. Michael says:

    If I was asked to identify where I get my political or any news, I wouldn’t be able to pick just one. I don’t really watch anything on TV though-at least not political stuff.

    Probably the respondents were asked about any of the sources they read/watch, and their answers count on all of those.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    I’m not sure why the media is arranged that way. Here is the order I get by totalling the three figures:

    Hannity & Colmes: 206
    NPR: 202
    The New Yorker/Atlantic 201
    Rush Limbaugh: 195
    Colbert Report: 187
    O’Reilly Factor: 171
    NewsHour: 165
    C-SPAN: 157
    Daily Show: 149
    CNN: 136
    Letterman/Leno: 124
    National Enquirer: 98

    And I always thought Hannity and Colmes was one of the worst hours of television around.

  7. Brett says:

    I think three better questions would be

    1. What are the three biggest expenses in the federal budget?

    2. What is the treaty that the US, Canada, and Mexico are a part of, and what type of treaty is it?

    3. Name the United States’ three biggest trading partners.

  8. Michael says:

    And I always thought Hannity and Colmes was one of the worst hours of television around.

    You can kind of see a trend on the first question. Shows that like Democrats evidently don’t push the fact they’re in control of Congress, and shows that don’t like Democrats make it a point to push that fact. I’d be willing to bet that the trend was evident in the opposite direction 2 years ago.

  9. just me says:

    And I always thought Hannity and Colmes was one of the worst hours of television around.And I always thought Hannity and Colmes was one of the worst hours of television around.

    My husband hates this show-I have watched it a few times, and what is annoying to me and more so to my husband is that even if somebody has something worthwhile to say, everyone is so busy shouting at each other that you aren’t going to hear it anyway. Not to mention Hannity kind of annoys me. He sort of reminds me of an irritating yappy dog.

    I think the fact that Hannity and Colmes would be at the top is why they listed it that way.

  10. Brian says:

    I’m not sure why the media is arranged that way. Here is the order I get by totalling the three figures:

    Hannity & Colmes: 206
    NPR: 202
    The New Yorker/Atlantic 201
    Rush Limbaugh: 195
    Colbert Report: 187
    O’Reilly Factor: 171
    NewsHour: 165
    C-SPAN: 157
    Daily Show: 149
    CNN: 136
    Letterman/Leno: 124
    National Enquirer: 98

    And I always thought Hannity and Colmes was one of the worst hours of television around.

    More detailed results.

    I don’t think adding the %ages gives an accurate result – H&C were fourth overall in how many got all three right, for example.

  11. Richard Gardner says:

    I agree with Brett’s questions. It is similar to questions I frequently bring up:
    – What is the number one source of oil for the USA? (now that you missed that one….)
    – What is the number one source of imported oil? (now that you’ve missed that one….). And the next 4?
    – What country is our top trading partner? (It isn’t China)
    – Who is the leader of Canada, and what is his title? What is his political affiliation?
    – OK, who is the current or previous President of Mexico?

    I think Canada and Mexico matter more to the average citizen of the USA than the PM of the UK (though the UK does have nukes). I don’t know the current mayor of London but know he has a Russian name, and Red Ken is gone.

    Answers: the USA (34%), Canada (by far, then Saudi Arabia & Mexico, then Venezuela and Nigeria – no Iraq), Canada (at $563B to China’s $387B, then Mexico at $347B (close to China’s number)), Harper (Conservative/Tory), Fox & Calderon

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    1.lichqueen

    2.who cares

    3. you mean this week or next?