September 24, 2007

Political Knowledge Update

Most of the Public Is Familiar with Key Political and Iraq Facts


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Nearly nine-in-ten Americans know that China was the source of dangerous toys and tainted food recently in the news. And sizeable majorities can identify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Sunni as the branch of Islam struggling with the Shia for control in Iraq. But fewer can identify Robert Gates’ position in the administration, the approximate level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or the Hispanic candidate in the Democratic Party’s presidential race.

Public knowledge of political and world affairs varies widely in the most recent update to the Pew News IQ survey, conducted Aug. 16-19 among 1,005 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Respondents correctly answered an average of seven multiple-choice questions out of the 12 asked on the quiz. But many people did very well: 26% could answer 10 or more of the questions. Relatively few people did very poorly; just 14% could answer only three or fewer questions.

The demographic differences in knowledge levels among respondents are familiar ones. Better educated people did better on every question than did those with less education. Overall, those with a college degree answered, on average, about eight (8.2) out of 12 questions correctly, while those with a high school education or less had an average of fewer than six (5.5) correct answers. Men did better than women on many questions, and, on average, correctly answered 1.3 more questions overall than women did.

Older people did better than younger people on the test. People ages 50 and older answered, on average, seven and a half (7.5) questions correctly, while people under the age of 30 averaged fewer than six (5.5) correct responses.

People in the News

Americans also were tested on their knowledge about several people in the news. Roughly three-quarters (74%) could identify the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives as Nancy Pelosi. Somewhat surprisingly, more Republicans than Democrats knew this (81% among Republicans, 72% among Democrats).

A comparable percentage overall (71%) knew that Vladimir Putin is the president of Russia. The percentage able to identify Putin increased from 60% in a March poll. A smaller majority of 54% could identify Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s religion as Mormon.

The public is less familiar with two other individuals. Just 41% could identify Robert Gates’ position as the U.S. Secretary of Defense. And fewer than one-in-three (31%) knew that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson is of Hispanic descent.

Knowledge about Iraq

Two key facts about the situation in Iraq were known by majorities of the public. Two-thirds (67%) could identify that the Sunni are the branch of Islam vying for political control in Iraq with the other major branch, the Shia. The ability to correctly identify this Islamic sect increased slightly from 62% in March. The percentage of Americans who could identify how many U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq has remained relatively stable over the course of the war. More than half (54%) knew that the war dead numbered around 3,500 American troops at the time of the survey; comparable numbers answered this question correctly in April 2006 (53%), when total troop deaths numbered 2,500, and in April 2004 (55%) when there were between 500 and 1,000.

Wall Street — the Dow and the Journal

Americans are more knowledgeable today about the level of the stock market than they were at the beginning of this decade. About four-in-ten Americans (41%) correctly said that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 13,000 points at the time of the survey. When this same question was asked in May 2000, at the height of the dot-com era, fewer than three-in-ten (28%) were able to estimate the Dow’s average correctly.

Nearly half of the public (48%) could correctly identify the Wall Street Journal as the newspaper that Rupert Murdoch is in the process of purchasing.

Young People Tuned in to YouTube

Significantly higher percentages of older Americans than younger ones could provide a correct answer to each question on the quiz, with one notable exception: More young people knew that YouTube was the website that sponsored a Democratic candidate debate. More than half (55%) of those younger than age 30 got this one right, compared with just 21% among those ages 65 and older. In contrast, just 37% knew that Mitt Romney is a member of the Mormon church, compared with 73% among the oldest respondents. Similarly, just 20% of the youngest group knew the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, compared with 51% of those ages 65 and older.

Two-thirds of young people (66%) were aware that the Democratic Party holds a majority in the U.S House of Representatives, but older people were even more aware of this (77%-85% among older groups). Overall, 78% know of the Democratic Party’s majority, about the same as in February of this year (76%). This level of awareness of party control is somewhat higher than it was throughout the period of Republican control from 1995 through 2006, or of the Democratic Party’s control in the years before the Republican takeover in 1995.
About the Survey

Results for this report are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of 1,005 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.