Many Americans have blind spots when it comes to how well they know recent controversial policies, and Democrats are in the dark more than Republicans, according to a new comprehensive survey of voters by NORC at the University of Chicago.
NORC, which surveyed more than 2,000 adults in the run-up to this year's elections, found that voters see the world through partisan lenses, and are more apt to assign blame and give credit based on their political views. Americans also appear to default to partisanship as a kind of cheat sheet when they don't know specifics on a political question.
NORC tested this by asking voters who was responsible for the 2010 health care law, the economic stimulus, the 2003 prescription-drug benefit in Medicare and the Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out Wall Street. The first two came under President Obama, while the other two were signed by President George W. Bush.
But less than half of voters were able to attribute them to the correct presidents, and Obama supporters were worse than supporters of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney.
"I'm not sure that I would have predicted the pattern we actually observed, which is Democrats being more likely to over-attribute to Obama," said J. Mark Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "My speculation is that it's largely motivational. That, like everybody else, the Democrats remember that Obama did something in these areas, and most of what they're doing is guessing as to who did what."
Only about a third of Obama supporters were correctly able to identify who signed which of the health care policies, while a little more than half of Romney supporters did. And about 28 percent of Obama supporters knew who signed each of the financial policies, while 36 percent of Romney supporters did.
Romney supporters, though, were also more likely to be wrong about both financial policies — with 16 percent misattributing TARP to Mr. Obama and the stimulus to Mr. Bush.
Political scientists have known for years that voters use partisanship to substitute when they don't have knowledge.
And lampooning voters' lack of knowledge has been fodder for late-night comedians and talk shows for years.
During this year's campaign, radio show host Howard Stern played clips of interviews with Americans who didn't know Osama bin Laden had been killed, and couldn't identify whether Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney was the pro-choice candidate.
On one of the major hot-button issues, Mr. Obama's health care law, NORC said it remains an electoral problem for Democrats.
Once again, opinion is largely divided along partisan lines. But in the battle among independents, they favor repeal, 49 percent to 38 percent, and 41 percent expect their own health care will cost more after the law takes full effect.
NORC also found that someone's political preferences matched up with whom they blamed for the sluggish economy. Obama voters had a more positive view of the economy and were likely to give him some credit for helping, for example.
"Democrats and Republicans see the events in Washington in different ways," NORC said in the report. "Democrats are much more likely to say that Obama tried to repair the economy, but congressional Republicans did not assist. For their part, Republicans credit the congressional Republicans with sincere efforts to fix the economy and Obama with little."
Mr. Hansen, who collaborated on the study, said the findings suggest politicians should be wary of reading too much into specific election mandates, saying that in both polling and elections, "voters are sending a pretty noisy signal about what they want."
Still, he said, voters are making conscious decisions in elections, and that should not be ignored.
"There is the simple fact that the voters choose one side rather than the other, and that changes the possibilities for what can be done and what can't be done," he said. "The mandate may not be around particular policies, but people have chosen particular people, and they haven't done so blindly. There's a logic behind the choices that people make."
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