Issue Knowledge and Perceptions of Agreement in the 2004 Presidential General Election

Article excerpt

The importance of political information in the democratic process has long been debated. While some view political information as an indispensable component of a healthy democracy (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996), others maintain that those with minimal political information can still use heuristics to make reasonable choices (Lupia and McCubbins 1998). In the context of this debate on the importance of political knowledge, we ask four questions about the 2004 presidential election: To what extent did voters in 2004 learn the presidential candidates' issue positions? Did those citizens with higher levels of political knowledge make different voting decisions from their less informed counterparts? On those issues where there was a mismatch between citizens' perceptions of agreement and actual agreement on the issues, could citizens have learned the candidates' actual issue positions from the presidential debates or the press? And, were candidate ambiguity and heuristic confusion possible culprits in the instances in which there was a mismatch?

An analysis of data from the National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) shows that on the seven issue positions examined, citizen understanding of the presidential candidates' positions was relatively high compared to 2000. However, as in 2000, when people made mistakes in attributing issue positions to the candidates, the results helped Republican incumbent George W. Bush and hurt Democratic candidate John Kerry. Mistakes, in other words, were not randomly distributed between the candidates. Moreover, the more information citizens acquired, the more they tended to support Kerry over Bush, after controlling for six demographic variables as well as party identification and ideology. In short, political information matters. Content analyses indicate that citizens could have learned about the candidates' positions from the debates as well as press coverage.

Because U.S. citizens vote for candidates, not policy positions, understanding where the candidates stand on issues is important. Unsurprisingly, policy preferences influence, in part, how people vote (Page and Jones 1979). While the causal direction of the issue proximity and vote choice relationship has been the subject of some debate, it is clear that "issue proximities covary with voting behavior" (Brody and Page 1972, 457). When voters fail to see a difference between the candidates on an issue, the issue has no impact on the voting decision (Page and Brody 1972). Candidate ambiguity, therefore, inhibits policy voting.

Although voter knowledge levels are far from optimal (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Waldman and Jamieson 2003), failures to detect differences between two candidates are not necessarily the fault of the voters. In addition to the limitations of humans' internal information-processing capacities (Miller 1956), four environmental factors may constrain citizens from perceiving issue differences between candidates. First, if the media environment does not provide significant coverage of an issue--either because reporters are not interested in the topic, cover it in ways that minimize learning (Cappella and Jamieson 1997), or do not see the issue featured in candidate communication-then media reports will not help voters see issue distinctions between the candidates. Second, if the candidates take clear stands on an issue but their stated issue positions seem similar to voters, then the issue will not receive prominent news treatment, and the similarity, even if noted in news and by voters, will not invite voter scrutiny. For example, Page and Brody (1972) explained the inability of the Vietnam War issue to drive voters toward a choice of either Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey as a byproduct of the similarity in these candidates' stated positions on Vietnam.

Third, if candidates agree on a policy goal (e.g., a prescription drug benefit) but disagree about the means of achieving it (e. …