Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Campaigns and the Knowledge Gap in Three Transitional Democracies

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Campaigns and the Knowledge Gap in Three Transitional Democracies

Article excerpt

Analysis of panel data from Brazil, Mexico, and Russia suggests that presidential campaigns have ambiguous effects on inequalities in political knowledge. In all three countries, the "knowledge gap" among citizens with different levels of socioeconomic resources stayed the same or widened. At the same time, less affluent and educated citizens who paid a great deal of attention to the campaign learned more than equally attentive high-status citizens. These findings suggest that modern, media-intensive electoral campaigns do provide information to low socioeconomic status citizens in readily digestible form, but they fail to stimulate sufficient attention to politics among these citizens to close the knowledge gap.

Can citizens who have traditionally assumed what Almond and Verba (1963) termed a "passive subject role" become sophisticated about national political actors and issues? Or will only the more elite members of society have the wherewithal to become knowledgeable about public affairs? In this article, we examine changes in levels of political knowledge in Mexico, Brazil, and Russia, paying close attention to the gap in civic competence across high, moderate, and low socioeconomic status (SES) groups. We test whether electoral campaigns in these transitional democracies replicate-or even exacerbate-knowledge gaps. This topic has received some attention in the United States and other industrialized democracies (e.g., Holbrook 2002; Moore 1987; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Nadeau et al. 2001; Prior 2005; Jeri, Barabas, and Bolsen 2004). Never before has it been systematically addressed in a democratizing context.

Using panel survey data collected during presidential elections in Mexico (2000), Brazil (2002), and Russia (1996), we find that levels of civic competence depend heavily on SES. Moreover, high-status individuals tend to learn more from campaigns than low-status individuals, thus exacerbating the knowledge gap. At the same time, the knowledge gap virtually disappears for individuals follow politics closely; low SES citizens who paid attention to electoral campaigns achieved roughly the same levels of political sophistication as did high SES citizens. We conclude that modern campaigns could potentially reduce aggregate knowledge gaps, but in practice are unlikely to do so. The principal obstacle does not appear to lie in the quality of campaign messages; nor is it the case that low SES citizen are inherently less able to absorb political information. Rather, differential levels of political attentiveness are to blame for knowledge gaps.

The following section discusses inequalities in political knowledge and how these inequalities might be affected by campaigns. After that we describe our data sources and methods for comparing across the three countries. Gaps in political knowledge during each presidential campaign are then reviewed. That is followed by analyzes of the impact of campaign attention and SES on knowledge acquisition at the individual level. The final section briefly discusses the implications of our findings for scholarly research on political communication and democratization.


Scholars have long observed that citizens in democratic countries lack basic information about politics. Many people are ignorant of fundamental civic facts, such as how laws are made, the identities of major political actors in the policymaking process, and what positions these actors hold. Because such knowledge is an important ingredient in political engagement and the quality of citizen judgments, widespread ignorance about politics is generally regarded as problematic for democracy (Lippmann 1998 [1922], 1993 [1927]; Campbell et al. 1960; Converse 1964, 1970; Neuman 1986; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Niemi and Junn 1998; Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1999).

One corollary problem is that the political information that does exist in the mass public is not evenly distributed. …

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