PPP pollster: “People are stupid”

posted at 7:10 pm on March 14, 2012 by Tina Korbe

It’s one thing to acknowledge that the average American doesn’t have hours at his disposal with which to study the details of every last development in a presidential race or the details of every last piece of federal legislation. It’s another to suggest that voters are stupid simply because they have lives outside of following the news and/or have different opinions than those who spin the news. The average American probably doesn’t know as much about the campaign trail as, say, Rick Santorum or about the machinations of Congress as, say, John Boehner — but Rick Santorum and John Boehner don’t know as much as a doctor about what goes on in a hospital or as much as a teacher about what goes on in a public school.

The D.C. wonks’ mainstay Politico recently published a piece that purported to explore the question, “How much do voters know?” It seems, though, that editor John Harris and reporter Alex Burns were more interested to advance their thesis that “Voters are stupid” than they were to actually answer the question. Last night on Politico’s live-stream election show, John Harris all but admitted that:

(Thirty seconds in, I lost count of the number of times Harris used the word “stupid” — every time with the same annoying inflection.)

In the advancement of that thesis, Harris and Burns were helped considerably by Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen, who delivers the money quote of the piece.

“The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid,” Jensen says. “I tell a client trying to make sense of numbers on a poll that are inherently contradictory that at least once a week.”

What strikes me as most interesting about this: People in general very rarely want to look inward to take responsibility when they could look outward to place blame. How refreshing would it be to see a bit of self-reflection from pollsters and journalists? An admission from a pollster that “We as pollsters are often myopic” or from a journalist that “We as journalists are often elitist” would be a lot more refreshing to read than “Voters are stupid.” Who knows? Perhaps such humility from “insiders” would inspire “outsiders” to take a little more responsibility for the information they consume, too.

Last thought: If voters are uninformed, wouldn’t that at least be in some part the fault of folks like Harris and Burns? Isn’t it their job to inform the electorate? If it’s just that people of all ideological predispositions can be surprisingly resistant to fact, shouldn’t Politico’s paid professionals research what it will take to reach people with the facts and then do it?

Blaming the problems our nation faces on a stupid electorate is a cop-out. We all bear some responsibility for them; it’s time to take it.


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