WHAT DO AVERAGE VOTERS THINK: Voters think the darnedest things!

FRIDAY, JANUARY 27, 2012

Part 3—In search of information and outreach: What do we the people think?

We the people may have strange ideas! Information surveys have long made it clear—we often don’t know the most basic facts about even the most significant issues.

In the modern partisan context, tribal disinformation and messaging may take over from there.

And so it was that a set of voters offered their reactions to an anodyne statement from Wednesday’s State of the Union Address. On Hannity, Dr. Luntz quoted something Obama said. His focus group took it from there:
LUNTZ (1/25/12): Sean, I want to go right now to a clip about fairness because the president talked about it several times tonight...

OBAMA (videotape): We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

LUNTZ: “Everyone plays by the same set of rules. Everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Who is against that here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not true. He says everyone plays by the same set of rules, and the tax credit is for you, and the tax breaks are for you, it's— He singled out everybody.

[…]

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't make life fair. Life is not fair. And there's no way to do it. And that's really code for what the president is saying. And I think it's just—he's just talking socialism again. And economically—

[...]

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How can the expectation be that we play by the same set of rules when government doesn't?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I don't think you can talk about fairness and having a fair share and working the same when you're giving people, you're holding hands and you're giving people too many opportunities.
Those objections to Obama’s statement aren’t necessarily “false” or unfounded. But what do these voters actually think? Consider what the last woman said:

She seemed to say that Obama has been “holding hands and giving people too many opportunities.” But what did she mean by that? Was that a reference to “Obamacare?” Was it a “food stamps” reference?

Let’s consider the bombastic charge Newt Gingrich has been tossing around.

Over and over, conservative voters keep getting told that Obama is “the most successful food stamp president in history.” Could that be what this woman meant? Is that what she had in mind? If so, what does she think Obama has done with regard to food assistance programs? What does she think Gingrich is specifically saying when he tosses that charge all around?

Like you, we have no way of knowing what that irate woman meant. Nor do we know what voters think and believe concerning Obama and “food stamps.”

Gingrich keeps delivering his charge. He did so again after Wednesday’s address. But what does Gingrich even mean by his repeated assertion? Does he mean that Obama has widened eligibility for food assistance? Does he mean that Obama’s job plans have failed—that this has widened participation? Plainly, Gingrich seems to be saying that Obama wants many people on food assistance. He has repeatedly said or implied that Obama wants to create “a culture of dependence.”

What do voters think and believe about this repeated charge? We have never seen a print reporter or TV host ask a range of voters what they think the facts might be concerning this topic. (We would love to see Ed Schultz discuss this topic with a range of average voters.) And oh yes: Despite the repeated nature of this charge, we haven’t seen any major news org present a news report about the facts behind this charge.

On our liberal sites, we call the charge racist and then we move on. This strikes us as ineffective.

Last May, Politifact developed a fair amount of information when they fact-checked Gingrich’s statement about our “food stamp president” (click here). But very few voters read that site. (It foolishly ranked his statement “half true.”) How many voters have been exposed to a range of information about this matter? More to the point:

Have you ever seen a liberal entity conduct outreach to voters regarding this topic? Regarding any topic? Despite Gingrich’s serial bombast, we have never seen a major newspaper lay out the facts about food assistance during the current economic meltdown. But beyond that: As Gingrich throws this bomb around, have you ever seen a liberal news org develop the background information? Have you seen any liberal entity conduct outreach forums in which the basic facts of this matter are explained to average voters?

We have not. Voters like that “unidentified woman” hear all manner of garbage from Newt; they interpret such bombast as they might. Have you ever seen your tribe attempt to perform fundamental outreach? Have you ever seen a major news org explain the facts of this case?

Information plays an amazingly limited role in our political culture. Within the liberal world, outreach to average voters is virtually non-existent; we specialize in repeating the claims on which we already agree. And when we voters are left on our own, weird thoughts may worm their way into our heads. This brings us back to Marc Fisher’s front-page report in last Saturday’s Washington Post.

Fisher explored the way voters form their views in these highly tribal times. Many voters now get their information from highly partisan sources, he said.

But uh-oh! The process doesn’t seem to be taking hold with one of the three South Carolina voters Fisher profiled! James Akers is a Democratic Party official—and he may vote for Romney:
FISHER (1/21/12): Akers, a 30-year-old real estate agent who is also vice chairman of Greenville County’s Democratic Party, is an incessant tweeter...

What Akers recommends to his 798 followers on Twitter are news articles and commentaries, almost all from sites that fit comfortably with his socially liberal perspective—places such as MSNBC, Huffington Post, Mother Jones and CNN.

[...]

But Akers was never so deep in his information bubble as to block out alternative ideas. Although he was a Hillary Clinton delegate at the last Democratic convention, he has been disappointed enough by Obama—“He’s become such a divisive figure”—to have fallen for Jon Huntsman, the Republican who Akers thought would be tough on spending but moderate on social issues.

Now that Huntsman has dropped out, Akers is weighing whether to risk expulsion from the county Democratic hierarchy if he votes in the GOP primary—in South Carolina, all voters may take part in any party’s primary—or stick with his own party.

He has been surprised to find himself interested in Romney as a moderate who might not be that different from Obama and might be more competent.
Akers is a Democratic Party official—but he may vote for Romney! The information bubble doesn’t seem to be working its will on him.

On the other hand, Fisher also profiled 46-year-old Diane Belsom. Life inside the bubble seems to agree with her:
FISHER: Belsom—gracious, willowy and chatty—sometimes worries that she’s not seeing the full picture, yet she wants her family to live firmly in “our Christian worldview. I want my daughter to know that we are under attack by radical Islam, even if she sometimes gets depressed about the whole movement to Sharia law. I home-school her because the government schools have an anti-Christian worldview, so they’re teaching lies.”

Growing up in South Florida, Belsom read three local newspapers, and the family watched the evening news on TV. But as she and her parents grew more religious, they began reading mainly conservative and Christian outlets. The bookcases in Belsom’s home office include shelves of titles on creationism, as well as books warning against pornography, “the gay agenda” and radical Islam.

On Facebook, the big story is Obama deciding against approving an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. Belsom scans rants against the decision. One headline reads, “Obama cans pipeline, signaling no interest in job creation”.

“I think we can all agree Obama’s driving us into the ground,” she says. “My honest opinion is that he hates our country and is trying to destroy us. Hopefully, I’m not too tunnel-visioned. But I guess I mostly see what I agree with.”
Sometimes, we the people have the darnedest ideas! Belsom’s “honest opinion” is that Obama “hates our country and is trying to destroy us.” Her daughter “sometimes gets depressed about the whole movement to Sharia law.”

And wait—there’s more! "I think we can all agree Obama’s driving us into the ground,” Belsom says. What do you suppose she means by that? What do you suppose she knows, or thinks she knows, about the growth of food assistance?

Voters think the darnedest things, especially in this age of burgeoning tribal culture. Having said that, we’ll ask you again:

Have you ever seen a major newspaper explain the facts about food assistance? Have you ever seen a liberal news org do so? Have you ever seen a progressive org conduct outreach to average voters about this topic? About any topic? Do you know of any such org which has created a forum the average voter would be inclined to trust?

Voters think the darnedest things! As we look at the burgeoning tribal world, we see little effort from our own tribe to intervene in this disastrous process.

Was the third voter the charm: Who was Fisher’s third Palmetto State voter? Read his piece and see! This young woman tries to read a lot of news sources to learn as much as she can.

Question: Where could she go to learn the facts about that “food stamps” charge? Do you know of any forum our tribe is conducting, to which she might be sent?

11 comments:

  1. Perhaps if Mr. Somerby spent less time obsessing about Dowd, Collins and Maddow (all coincidentally female, right?) he'd know that facts countering every single right wing talking point are out there and can be found without too much trouble by those inclined to question said talking points.

    For instance, we know for a fact Bush added more people to the food stamp program than Obama has. We know working families receive food stamps and the typical food stamp recipient is a single caucasian mother with dependent children.

    We even know the food stamp program is a boon for the agricultural sector with the government acting as a middle man between farmers with surpluses and people who otherwise couldn't afford to eat.

    So the problem isn't that the information isn't out there, it's that a certain segment of our citizenry is not interested in facts.

    How else do you explain the chants of "Kenya!! Kenya!!" at Republican gatherings this election cycle?

    Now, Mr. Somerby can claim, as is his wont, that both "tribes" are equally guilty but unless he can show both "tribes" engaging in 24/7 coast-to-coast and border-to-border dissemination of what he charitably calls "half-truths" I'm not buying it.

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    1. Okay, did you read Bob's post? He is talking about how liberals, or the MSM, don't bother to try to explain to average people the underlying issues behind stuff like Newt's claims about foodstamps. You keep using the word "we," but who are you referring to: people who read this blog, liberals, etc? Average people don't know this stuff, and people in the media don't seem to know how to explain it to them. You make grand, sweeping generalities about what "those" people are interested in. The "Kenya, Kenya" remark is icing on the cake.

      None of this stuff gets explained adequately in the liberal media, which allows people like the Akers to flop all over the place, not really knowing anything. But we just want to call opponents racist, and then feel good about ourselves...

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    2. Baloney.

      I'm just an average person. I don't spend hours a day watching cable news or reading newspapers or blogs and I know what the facts about the food stamp program are.

      There is no reason to believe, as you and Mr. Somerby do, that the people in Luntz's group who believe public schools teach lies, for instance, and whose idea of diverse news sources is to turn off talk radio and turn on fox news would believe anything "liberal" news sources report.

      The very idea of "liberal" news sources in and if itself is an invention of Roger Ailes to give Fox a raison d'etre. There is no denying there was no MSNBC in its current incarnation until years after Fox started broadcasting. You might call the very existance of "liberal" news sources a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of Ailes.

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    3. Many of the people in Luntz's focus group say they voted for Obama in the last election, so I would say they are reachable. I don't know if he asked them if they watched Fox News, or where they get their information from, so I'm not sure what you are talking about. How do you know what the people in the focus group believe public schools tell lies? It sounds like you are projecting your own prejudices onto them, without knowing what they think.

      That you can find out the truth about food stamps is irrelevant to what Bob is saying. Of course you can find it, if you are looking for it. But what about people who aren't, which constitute the vast majority of people? You won't find much help from various liberal venues, or from mainstream sources. They don't explain things like the underlying issues behind foodstamps often, or when they do, very well. That is the point he is trying to make.

      This reminds me of the recent dust up about Glenn Greenwald and Ron Paul. I didn't agree with what Greenwald had to say about Paul (I think Paul is vile), but it was very surprising to see that Greenwald's opponents couldn't get the basic gist of what he was saying right, they had to invent a straw man for his position and attack it. This seems to be what you are doing with Somerby here.

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    4. The Real AnonymousJanuary 27, 2012 at 3:19 PM

      "That you can find out the truth about food stamps is irrelevant to what Bob is saying. Of course you can find it, if you are looking for it. But what about people who aren't, which constitute the vast majority of people? You won't find much help from various liberal venues, or from mainstream sources."

      Your argument is ridiculous.

      In order to find something a person has to first be looking for it. Why would a person claim to want a variety of news sources if they aren't looking for news?

      If you don't trust the government you aren't going to believe government sources anyway.

      If you think the press has a liberal bias you aren't going to believe them either.

      That's the problem.

      It's not that NPR, NY TImes etc haven't covered the foodstamp issue when its in the news, its that Luntz's panel, no matter how much they claim to want information from a wide variety of sources, really don't because varied sources aren't that hard to find.

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    5. Luntz's group never says that they get their information from a wide variety of sources (at least from what Bob has posted), that's coming from the Washington Post article, so I'm not sure what you are talking about. Most people do not get their information from a wide variety of sources, just one or two, if they get any at all. Bob's point is that most of the mainstream media, and liberals in the progressive press, do not cover important stuff like foodstamps, or do so incompetently, so that even if people read those, they won't know much about it.

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  2. Perhaps the question should be, "do we think?", rather than "What do we think?

    “The illusion-of-truth effect states that a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one. In a 1977 experiment participants were asked to read 60 plausible statements every two weeks and to rate them based on their validity. A few of those statements (some of them true, others false) were presented more than once in different sessions. Results showed that participants were more likely to rate as true statements they had previously heard (even if they didn't consciously remember having heard them), regardless of the actual validity of the statement.
    As the illusion-of-truth effect occurs even without explicit knowledge, it is a direct result of implicit memory. Some participants rated previously heard sentences as true even when they were previously told that they were false.[4] The illusion-of-truth effect shows in some ways the potential dangers of implicit memory as it can lead to unconscious decisions about a statement's veracity.
    Experiments on the hippocampus reveal that if a person receives information that is questionable, they may not fully accept it at the time. However, with each subsequent exposure, the skepticism disappears, and the memory becomes as real as it were recently experienced.”

    For those of us that like to do our own research, the above quotes can be found on a number of websites. Just Google “illusion of truth effect.”

    To be sure, everybody does this, and this explains why so many people are incapable of accepting facts that are staring them in the face. Contradictory statements don’t weaken a listener’s beliefs; they reinforce them.

    Many believe that “cutting taxes increases revenues”, and that the fix for unemployment is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent or lower taxes on corporations and “job creators” even more.
    Likewise, the cure for the housing and financial mess is presumed to be less regulation of banks and mortgage brokers.
    Conservatives keep insisting that US healthcare is the finest system in the world, and that all the other systems are miserable failures, despite evidence to the contrary.

    Republican candidates repeat these points frequently in their “debates”.

    Thus you have the double-edged sword. The messages the tribes get from their chieftains, and the arguments from the other tribe both serve to bolster one’s beliefs.

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  3. I googled "food stamps keep Americans out of poverty" and it resulted in many hits. Here are a few:

    http://money.cnn.com/2011/09/14/news/economy/poverty_government_assistance/index.htm

    http://news.firedoglake.com/2012/01/23/the-food-stamp-speaker-is-actually-newt-gingrich/

    http://www.businessweek.com/politics-policy/joshua-green-on-politics/archives/2012/01/newt_gingrichs_dodgy_attack_on_food_stamps.html

    http://michigancitizen.com/demonizing-the-poor-for-being-poor-p9882-76.htm

    A mix of liberal and MSM (Bloomberg!) sites with explanations and defenses of the food stamp program. Those are just the ones on the first page. So your assertion that no one but Newt and other conservatives are talking about the issue is false.

    A lot of us liberals have tried until we are blue in the face to reason with people and inform them about public assistance. To paraphrase Rep. Frank, it can be like talking to a dining room table. Reagan planted the welfare queen meme in white America's psyche 30 years ago and it spread like kudzu. There is no dislodging it. It's right up there with abortion for why people become Republicans even though it's not in most people's economic interest to vote that way.

    And yes, it is deeply rooted in racism. The definition of welfare is tax dollars going to "those people" so they can shoot drugs and fornicate. If you ever really sat down and talked to the average white voter about economic issues and government spending, Bob, you would be amazed at the cognitive dissonance. Most of them rely or have relied on a government program, including things like food stamps and Medicaid, but it's different when they do it. So if you want to waste your time trying to persuade these lost causes, have at it. Let's see how your focus groups go.

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    1. You understand that the "average white voter" in this country, is, umm, most of the voters? So liberals should just expect to lose elections from now until 20-30 years in the future? Sounds like a sound campaign strategy...

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  4. One reason why "liberals" are so poor as "messaging" is that there's no money in it. "Conservatives" have a reason for lying: it's profitable, in the form of lower taxes and business subsidies. Fox News has been enormously profitable for Rupert Murdoch, in what it's achieved for him and his companies through public policy.

    And there's far more incentive for right-wing billionaires to finance propaganda, in the form of think-tanks, professorships and book contracts, than for liberal billionaires to tout the virtues of enlightenment values, which could end up raising their taxes.

    It's also true that a propagandist won't, by definition, ever tire of telling the same lies over and over again, because the object isn't truth, it's policy. Anyone interested in the truth, however, will give up, sooner or later, out of fatigue and disgust.

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  5. A lot of voters hear that Obama is spending lavishly on things, don't see it benefiting them directly, and assume that the money is going into the pocket of someone undeserving. We call those voters "Republicans." The reason why they're Republicans is that they think someone lazy is getting a free ride from the Democrat government, and Republicans will stop it. It's the grand unified theory of Republicanism. There's no stopping it. There's no explaining why it's wrong. Let's just outvote them.

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