What Are Low Information Voters?

And why they are becoming a majority of US voters

As they wait in a long line, a group of voters study their smartphones.
As they wait in a long line, a group of voters study their smartphones. SDI Productions/Getty Images

Low information voters are people who vote though being poorly informed about the political issues involved or where the candidates stand on those issues. 

Key Takeaways: Low Information Voters

  • Low information voters vote despite lacking a clear understanding of the issues or knowledge of the candidates as people.
  • Low information voters depend on “cues,” such as media headlines, party affiliation, or the candidates’ personal appearance in making their voting decisions.
  • Election trends indicate that low information voters represent a growing portion of the American electorate.
  • Rather than a pejorative, the term is merely a reflection of the American public’s growing lack of interest in politics. 

History and Origins

Used mainly in the United States, the phrase “low information voter” became popular after the publication of American political scientist Samuel Popkin’s 1991 book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. In his book, Popkin argues that voters increasingly depend on TV ads and sound bites—what he calls “low-information signaling”—to choose between candidates instead of meaningful, more substantial information. By analyzing recent presidential primary campaigns, Popkin suggests that as trivial as it may seem, this low-information signaling is how many voters form their impressions of a candidate’s views and skills.

In 2004, for example, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry had himself filmed windsurfing to combat his image as a stiff-jawed, elitist ivy-leaguer. However, Kerry’s photo op ad backfired, when the George W. Bush campaign ran the windsurfing footage with a voice-over accusing Kerry of repeatedly changing his positions on the Iraq War. “John Kerry,” the ad concludes. “Whichever way the wind blows.” While both ads amounted to low-information signaling as defined by Popkin, history shows the Bush campaign’s ad had an especially positive impact on voters. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s 1992 jazz saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall late night TV show, though seeming trivial at time, struck a historically positive chord with voters.

Traits of Low Information Voters

Building on the findings of Samuel Popkin, political scientists define low information as voters who know little about government or how the outcomes of elections might alter government policy. They also tend to lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition,” or a desire to learn. High cognition people are more likely to devote the time and resources necessary to evaluating the complex issues of interest to well-informed voters. On the other hand, people with a low need for cognition—low-information voters—see little reward in collection and evaluation of new information or consideration of competing issue positions. Instead, as Popkin observed in 1991, they tend to depend on cognitive shortcuts, such as the opinions of media “experts” to shape their political orientation. As a result, low-information voters are at risk of developing a cognitive bias—an error in thinking resulting in a stringent, narrow-minded worldview impacting their political choices.

Low-information voters typically know little to nothing about the candidates as people. Instead, they vote according to propaganda; sound bites they’ve heard in the media, eloquent speeches, celebrity endorsements, rumors, social media sites, or the advice of other low-information voters. 

Political scientists Thomas R. Palfrey and Keith T. Poole, in their book The Relationship between Information, Ideology, and Voting Behavior, found that low information voters are less likely to vote and that when they do they often vote for candidates they find more personally attractive. For example, it is widely believed that Richard Nixon’s five-o’clock-shadow, sweaty brow, and menacing scowl during his televised debate against the charismatic and upbeat John F. Kennedy cost him the 1960 presidential election.

Palfrey and Poole also found that the political views of low-information voters tend to be more moderate to conservative than those of high-information voters. Lacking clear-cut ideological preferences, low-information voters are less likely to be affiliated with a particular political party and are thus more likely to vote a split-ticket than well-informed voters.

The label “low-information voter” is often used by liberals as a pejorative when referring to conservatives. This, however, is an unfair generalization. For example, more undecided liberals than conservatives were won over by Bill Clinton’s saxophone serenade.

Voting Patterns and Effects

In today’s busy world of information overload, fewer people have the time and resources necessary to develop an in-depth understanding of most issues. Instead, people increasingly make their voting decisions based on cues such as the party affiliation of the candidate, endorsements by media personalities, incumbency status, and the physical appearance of the candidate.

Voting trends in national elections since the 1970s suggest that the number of low-information voters has been increasing steadily.

In his 2012 paper “Districting for a Low-Information Electorate,” professor of law Christopher Elmendorf suggests that since the probability of a single vote changing the outcome of a major election has become vanishingly small, individual voters feel they have no reason to become deeply informed about politics and policy. “And so, for the most part, they do not,” concludes Elmendorf.

As political journalist Peter Hamby notes, the growth in the ranks of low-information voters is merely a reflection of the fact that “most people don’t actually care about politics.”

Aware of the possibility that low-information voters may now represent a majority of the American electorate, politicians—who do care deeply about politics—have adapted their campaign strategies accordingly.

A series of scholarly studies conducted since 1992 have revealed five common characteristics of low-information voting:

  • In absence of other information, voters relied on the physical attractiveness of candidates to determine their honesty and political ideology.
  • In primary and general elections held from 1986 through 1994, voters tended to assume that Black and female candidates were more liberal than white and male candidates, even when they represented the same party.
  • Studies have found that candidates listed first on the ballot have an advantage, especially when voters don’t have much knowledge of the candidates or the issues. This so-called “name-order effect” has led most states to adopt intricate randomized alphabetical formulas for listing candidates on their ballots.
  • Low-information voters are more likely to vote for incumbent candidates accused of corruption than better-informed voters, presumably because they were not aware of the accusations.

2016 Presidential Election

Political scientists have long recognized the influence of certain ideological divisions within the American people on elections, such as political insider versus outsider, liberal versus conservative, and young versus old.

However, the 2016 presidential election pitting business mogul and TV personality Donald Trump, with virtually no political experience, against former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with decades of political experience, revealed a critical new split in the American people—those who care about politics versus those who do not.

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University
Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In defying the polls to win the presidency, Trump revealed an emerging gap between college and non-college-educated voters. Often, low-information voters, the latter group tends to views politicians with contempt and usually sit elections out. By making politics more about culture than policy, Trump attracted these reluctant voters, particularly rural and non-college-educated whites who as low-information voters, shunned conventional politicians and the mainline media.

Somewhat reinforced by the outcome of the 2016 election, a rather cynical theory holding that Republican politicians wanted and benefitted from a low-information electorate has gained traction among progressives and portions of the media. However, a 2012 paper by six American political scientists titled “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands, and Nominations in American Politics,” challenges that theory, concluding instead that both Republicans and Democrats favor low-information voters.

The paper cites the fact that 95% of incumbent candidates in hotly-contested House of Representatives elections win re-election, despite an apparent voter preference for change. The researchers conclude that voter’s failure to penalize incumbent politicians for extremist, even illegal behavior represents not approval of such behavior, but a lack of information about it. The paper says this is supported by the fact that in congressional districts where media actively works to create more informed voters, extremist House members face a far greater risk of defeat. The paper concludes that interest groups, grassroots activists, and the media are key actors in the American political system, and that electorate is largely uninformed.

In summary, low-information voters are neither ignorant nor unconcerned for the welfare of the nation. They do at least vote, which is more than can be said for an average of about 50% of all eligible voters in modern presidential elections. However, there is every indication that the ranks of highly-informed voters will continue to shrink, leaving the ballots of low-information voters a decisive factor in future U.S. elections.

Sources

  • Popkin, Samuel. “The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns.” The University of Chicago Press, 1991, ISBN 0226675440.
  • Palfrey, Thomas R.; Keith T. Poole. “The Relationship between Information, Ideology, and Voting Behavior.” American Journal of Political Science, August 1987.
  • Bawn, Kathleen. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics.” Cambridge University Press, August 16, 2012.
  • Lakoff, George. “Wrong-headed assumptions about ‘low-information’ voters.” Pioneer Press, November 10, 2015, https://www.twincities.com/2012/08/17/george-lakoff-wrong-headed-assumptions-about-low-information-voters/.
  • Riggle, Ellen D. “Bases of political judgments: The role of stereotypic and nonstereotypic information.” Political Behavior, March 1, 1992.
  • Mcdermott, Monika. “Race and Gender Cues in Low-Information Elections.” Political Research Quarterly, December 1, 1998.
  • Brockington, David. “A Low Information Theory of Ballot Position Effect.” Political Behavior, January 1, 2003.
  • McDermott, Monika L. “Voting Cues in Low-Information Elections: Candidate Gender as a Social Information Variable in Contemporary United States Elections.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, No. 1, Jan. 1997.
  • Fowler, Anthon and Margolis, Michele. “The political consequences of uninformed voters.” Electoral Studies, Volume 34, June 2014.
  • Elmendorf, Christopher. “Districting for a Low-Information Electorate.” The Yale Law Journal, 2012, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/72837456.pdf.
  • Bartels, Larry M. “Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections.” American Journal of Political Science, February, 1996, https://my.vanderbilt.edu/larrybartels/files/2011/12/Uninformed_Votes.pdf.
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Longley, Robert. "What Are Low Information Voters?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2021, thoughtco.com/low-information-voters-5184982. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 4). What Are Low Information Voters? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/low-information-voters-5184982 Longley, Robert. "What Are Low Information Voters?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/low-information-voters-5184982 (accessed September 25, 2021).