What Are Low-Information Voters?

A Look Into Their Impact on Politics

Voting booths in polling place
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You've studied the issues and candidates for weeks, maybe even months or years. You know who believes what and why. Congratulations, your vote is very likely going to be canceled out by a low-information voter who has probably put very little effort into this all. If you are lucky, that voter will complement your vote. But with the press and mass entertainment industry against what you believe in, are you feeling lucky?

The beloved "low-information voters," as they are called, became a popular term for conservative activists following the 2008 election of Barack Obama. It popped up frequently during the 2012 election between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. While the phrase is often used jokingly, it is also a serious description of a very large group of people. It's probably the dominant type of voter in reality. But that is the world we live in. While the term might be viewed as being insulting to some voters, the reality is this segment poses a credible problem for Republican politicians.

Who Are the Low Information Voters?

The oft-talked about low-information voters are those people who have little interest in or understanding of political affairs, rarely watch the news, and can't name major political figures or national events and still make voting decisions on this limited knowledge basis. Low information voters can definitely be both Republican and Democratic voters, but Democratic "outreach" to these voters hit new heights in 2008. Typically, these are not highly-likely voters. Targeting these people in both 2008 led to a handsome victory for Obama in 2008. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that among the voting age public, 31% didn't know that Dick Cheney was Vice-President and 34% couldn't name the Governor of their own state. Roughly 4 in 5 couldn't name the Secretary of Defense, and more than half didn't know that Nancy Pelosi was the Speaker of the House, while only 15% knew who Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was. Now, not all of these people are voters. But they are the people who would be heavily tapped into in coming elections.

Rise of the Low-Info Voter

In reality, there have always been low information voters. But the 2008 and 2012 elections saw these segments targeted more than ever before. Through advances in social media, the Obama campaign sought to position Obama as a "celebrity" as much as a politician. There was very little interest in who Obama was, what positions he held, or what he had accomplished. Instead, the campaign focused mostly on his race and the "historic" nature of his presidential run and focused on building up his image in the way celebrities are built up. While the Democrats knew they would lock up traditional Democratic voters, they sought out a way to turn out those who were very unlikely to vote: the low-information voters. By giving people a celebrity to vote for -- and turning Obama into Mr. Cool -- many younger voters turned out who otherwise usually would not have.

After election day 2008, pollster John Zogby was commissioned to do a poll of Obama voters immediately after they voted. The results were not impressive. While Obama voters overwhelmingly knew frivolous information about Sarah Palin such as the RNC's $150,000 wardrobe expenditures and about her daughters, they knew very little about Obama. By more than 2-1 they attributed an Obama quote about coal and energy prices to McCain, while most were unaware of the comment at all, despite it being a heavily debated topic during the campaign. A second poll by Wilson Research Strategies found similar results. McCain voters were overwhelmingly more likely to have greater general knowledge on most questions, the only questions Obama voters scored high on were frivolous, such as knowing that McCain "couldn't say" how many houses he owned. Obama voters also "outscored" McCain voters in the question about which candidate said they could "see Russia from my house." (84% of Obama voters chose Palin, although it was a Tina Fey skit on Saturday Night Live.

Do Republicans Want the Low Information Voter Pie?

In all likelihood, the number of "high information voters" is relatively low. The number of people who are interested in politics, watch news regularly, and stay updated on current events is likely outweighed by those who do not. These high-information voters tend to be older and more likely to have made up their mind on issues anyway. While many conservatives seem wary of going the "celebrity" route and trying to win on personality over policy, it almost seems an uphill climb. While the Democrats micro-target every possible sub-section of America, conservatives hope to have a breakthrough through logical discussion of issues. Needless to say, that didn't work out too well for Romney even as exit poll voters on election day said they thought he would be better at fixing things than Obama on most issues. (At the end of the day, they still voted for Obama anyway.)

We already saw the change in the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls. Marco Rubio showed his willingness to talk about his love of rap music while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie loved hitting the late night talk shows to grow his image. Social media, the entertainment culture, and self-celebritization are likely to become the norm. After all, how else do you reach low-information voters before your opponent does?