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Voting and talking

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 30 April 2021

The Canadian humourist Rick Mercer has had a series called 'Talking to Americans', and in one interview he asks a group of women what they think about the Russian proposal to bomb Chechnya and Saskatchewan. 'Should they bomb both, or only one?' There is a pause and then one of the women says, 'They should bomb both.' The others then agreed. Now his program is designed to make Canadians laugh, in this case at the sheer ignorance of those below the border. There's a moral in it as well. People will feel that they ought to have an answer, especially when, as in this case, they are being filmed as well. It would take some courage to respond 'That's a silly question.' Mercer has told them something that isn't so, but they finally agree. It seems that they don't know that Saskatchewan is a province across the border

Years ago, when I was deeply involved in survey research, I came to the conclusion that people took their cues about political questions from what their party said, rather than the party's developing its policies from what their supporters said, unless the policy questions touched them personally. An example might be the war in Vietnam (this was the 1960s) or the abortion issue. Well, as a tangent, a big new survey in the US is arguing, from the evidence, that the vast bulk of voters have embraced false and harmful dogmas that accord with their political views, meaning, in this case, the presidential candidate they voted for last November.

Here are two interesting examples:

  • 76% of Trump voters think that the average income of middle-income households fell during the Obama administration. In reality, their inflation-adjusted average income rose by $5,300 during this period.
  • 88% of Biden voters think that police are more likely to use lethal force when arresting black people than white people. In reality, police are 42% less likely to use lethal force when arresting blacks than whites.

I thought that the middle class had lost ground in those years, so I would have given the wrong answer. No less interesting is the finding that the media have influenced voters even against their likely ideological attitude to an issue. For example, nearly 40 per cent of Trump voters thought that tornadoes have increased since the 1950s, a common statement in the mainstream media, whereas the evidence suggests that if anything the number of tornadoes has slightly decreased As for the Biden voters, 88 per cent agreed that tornadoes had increased.

It is fascinating stuff. Yes, we are supplied daily with 'news', and from time to time we will be told something that doesn't seem right, or not told of counter news that would provide some balance. Voters were offered a selection of two or more possible answers, one of which was true. You could say you weren't sure, but only 10 per cent did so, which reinforces my comment about Mercer's victims above. Ten per cent is just too small a percentage, at least in my view, to be unsure about many of these questions, that is, if yours was an honest answer. This study shows that most voters gave the wrong answer.

For all 10 of the questions in which the electorate was most deluded, the wrong answers they gave concurred with progressive narratives propagated by the media. Moreover, the false answers they gave were often far removed from reality, not just slightly mistaken. For example, 66% of voters thought that doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would raise the average income of families in poverty by 25% or more. The real figure is about 1%.

In the 'global warming' part of the study, participants were asked whether or not they thought the Earth's average sea level had risen since the 1990s. It has, of course, indeed it has been doing so since at least the 1860s. Who thought so? Well, 72 per cent of all voters, 96 per cent of Biden supporters and 45 per cent of those who voted for Trump. What about land area - has it declined since the 1980s? It hasn't. On the contrary, it has increased. But only 7 per cent of Biden voters thought so, compared to 49 per cent of Trumpists. Has the level of CO2 increased since the late 1700s? Yes it has, and 86 per cent of all voters said so, 96 per cent for Biden voters and 76 per cent for Trump supporters.

Here's another I didn't have a right answer for. Did life expectancy in the US rise or fall after the implementation of Obamacare? Well, given that life expectancy almost everywhere has been rising for a long time, I would have said 'risen'. I would have been wrong: it went down by 0.1 years. Why? I doubt it was Obamacare. The decline is pretty small, and may be a function of errors of several kinds. Of comparable interest, drug overdose deaths rose, as well.


This seems to have been a careful and professional survey, conducted in live telephone interviews. The sampling errors are given for different subsets, and the party breakdown and locations of the respondents almost precisely match the population of likely voters. The questionnaire design is also sensible, so I give it a tick.

What are the take-home messages? First if you are intending to conduct a survey about citizens and their political views you need to be scrupulous about your methodology. I learned that in the US in the 1960s, and I tried as hard as I could to practise that rule when I did my own. This rule applies especially to question design. Do not lead the respondent, as Rick Mercer did, knowingly and for fun. The answer must come from the mind and knowledge of the respondent.

Second, be aware that the respondent and we as well, are guided to some degree by what we think we know, and that comes in large part from the mainstream media. The media are highly selective in what they give us - it can't be otherwise - and if they have house rules about what side to take in an issue conflict, and climate change is an obvious example, then you will be getting one aspect of the issue. How else to explain the partisan differences in this American survey over climate change questions? Even the Trump voters were highly influenced by misinformation.

Finally in both our countries it would be wonderful if we had really individual media outlets, and you could decide what papers to take and what channels to watch. It was like that in the UK, when I first lived there, at least with respect to newspapers. But the power of the media in converting all sources to a single view in this climate change area is staggeringly large. I don't at the moment see any likely change, until nature itself denies some of the mistruths, perhaps via a long cold spell, and I don't look forward to that with any joy.

And remember, the alarmists remind me,

When in danger
Or in doubt
Run in circles
Scream and shout

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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