Voter Knowledge and the House of Representatives

I was over at Donkey Rising today, reading through Ruy Teixeira's latest interesting post. I made it about halfway through the post until I found the sort of link that is a real gold mine for a numbers junkie such as myself: the archive of long-term data from the National Election Survey. I'll have to finish Ruy's post later, because I am so entranced by the numbers I found in that link.

One of the most intriguing long-term graphs I saw had to do with voter knowledge concerning which party controlled the House of Representatives. With the exception of 1974, every two years since 1970 the National Election Survey has asked the populace the following question:

Do you happen to know which party had the most members in the House of Representatives in Washington before the elections (this/last) month?" (IF NECESSARY:) "Which one?" The results were as follows:
Year	     '70   '72	 '76   '78   '80   '82
Incorrect     50    36	  39	41    29    68
Correct       50    64	  61	59    71    32

Year	     '84   '86	 '88   '90   '92   '94 
Incorrect     45    67	  41	51    41    30
Correct       55    33	  59	49    59    70

Year	     '96   '98	 '00   '02   '04 
Incorrect     27    34	  49	72    46
Correct       73    66	  51	28    54
Looking into the internals of these numbers, "independents" and "moderates" have almost always scored noticeably lower on the knowledge scale than liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. I don't find this surprising, as it backs up my general thesis that many of the people who consider themselves "independents" or "moderates" do so primarily because they are less politically engaged than the rest of the population and are not even aware of their strong similarities to one coalition or the other. It also isn't surprisingly that as someone's income and education level rise, the more likely they are to know the correct answer, and that this has an impact on other internal cross-tabs in the survey.

Leaving aside what isn't surprising, what really blows my mind is just how much these results vary from one election cycle to the next, even though control of the House has only changed once during the entire survey period. As you can see, voter knowledge on this topic was particularly low in 1982, 1986, and 2002. By contrast, it was particularly high in 1980, 1994, 1996, and 1998. For some reason, knowledge of who controlled the House dropped from 73% in 1996 to just 28% in 2002, even though there was no significant change in the composition of Congress during those six years.

Why was voter knowledge so unbelievably low in 2002? Were people confusing control of the Senate with control of both Houses of congress? That seems to be a possibility, as the lowest years of voter knowledge (1982, 1986, and 2002) all occurred during times when control of the two branches of congress were split between the two parties. Incorrect answers also seem to take a large jump after one party wins the national popular vote in the Presidential election but does not end up controlling the House of Representatives (see 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 2002). The three lowest years of voter knowledge occurred when these two factors combined with one another. When the party that controls the House of Representatives loses the popular vote in the Presidential election and does not control the Senate, apparently very few people are aware that that party actually controls the House of Representatives.

I think this means two things. First, people pay significantly more attention to the Senate and to the Presidency than to the House of Representatives. I guess that isn't surprising. More interestingly (and optimistically), it should also mean that many more voters will believe that Republicans control the House in 2006 than believed it in any election cycle since 1998. After all, people know that Bush won the popular vote in 2004, and that Republicans control the Senate. Thus, they will probably at least assume that Republicans also control the House. Considering low congressional approval ratings, this should result in an anti-Republican sentiment that would be reflected in generic congressional ballot polls. With Republicans consistently behind in such generic ballots by sizable margins, and seemingly unable to improve upon a support level in the high 30's or low 40's, there appears to be evidence that this is indeed happening.

Voters tend to never like the job performance of Congress, and I suppose it thus isn't surprising that whichever party they think is in power tends to do poorly in Congressional elections. In 1980, 1994, and 2002, most voters (over 65%) thought Democrats were in charge of the House, and Democrats suffered real losses as a result. In 1982, 1986, 1996, and 1998, most voters (over 65%) thought Republicans were in charge of the House, and Republicans suffered real losses as a result. In all the years in between, voters didn't really know who was in charge of the House (no consenus of 60% or higher), and there was no significant change in seats. If I am right about the knowledge patterns I listed above, most voters should know that Republicans are in charge in 2006, which should result in Republicans losing seats in 2006. Will it be enough seats for Democrats to take over? I don't know, but it should be an encouraging sign nonetheless.

Tags: House 2006 (all tags)



Chris, I think you've flipped some of the correct/incorrect labels. '82 and '86 were high years of voter knowledge, not low, as presented in the tables.
by danielj 2006-01-25 09:58AM | 0 recs
Re: Flipped?
Fixed, I think. My head is spinning.
by Chris Bowers 2006-01-25 10:03AM | 0 recs
How could 46% think Democrats had Congress in '04?
that's just bizarre.

Here's hoping they realize the Repubs run it this year!

by Ament Stone of California 2006-01-25 10:08AM | 0 recs
Note to Democrats:
I think it's pretty clear, then, that any time that a Democrat goes on TV, find a way to mention the phrase "The Republican-controlled House of Representatives."
by Fran for Dean 2006-01-25 10:13AM | 0 recs
It's interesting stuff
I have to say, though, I'd be very surprised to learn that people knew more about who controls the Senate than they do the House.  I'd expect roughly equal levels of non-knowledge.  2002 may be a blip as a big deal was made out of Jeffords.
by danielj 2006-01-25 10:14AM | 0 recs
Coin flip
What's hilarious is how much worse people do than a coin flip so much of the time.
by sco 2006-01-25 10:17AM | 0 recs
DeLay ought to help
The focus on DeLay ought to help fix in voters' minds who controls the House.  Thanks, Jack Abramoff.

What is amazing to me, of course, is that unlike the Senate, the House rarely changes hands.  You'd think that after 12 years, people would get that the Republicans control the House.

by David Kowalski 2006-01-25 10:35AM | 0 recs
Re: DeLay ought to help
Independents rule. Partisans are still getting paid off by lobbyists. The whole point of it all is to distract from real reform.

Looking at the "internals" of the polls - from an english major who never went farther in math than maybe a solid calculus course.

How many times, has this independent asked Chris Bowers to post the deviation and context - of his poll data?

Vote for real reform - vote to make each member of the house and senate stand up for their riders and amendments, they will have to sign their name to them , and defend them on the floor.  Who cares about plane tickets? This thing will cut off the 2 million dollar slices of pork that have..

  1. made all the "no bid contracts" that were awarded after Katrina, then famously set back out to bid... THEN ever so quietly rescheduled back into "no bid" category and increased..

  2. Provide famous amendments to Katrina relief effort Bill such as the one that allows Pennsylvania Coal fired electrical plants to pump more mercury in the air.. as part of the Katrina Relief effort!!

  3. "Let you vote for something, before you vote against it" - the Tax provision in the defense appropriations bill that provided a huge tax  payoff (engineered by Norquist and Gingrich) in the Defense bill that Kerry voted against - gee.. you might ask... why are we voting for tax breaks in a bill about body armour? Well.. .be careful if you stand up against it.

To independents about to rock: WE SALUTE YOU.
by turnerbroadcasting 2006-01-26 02:40AM | 0 recs
Re: DeLay ought to help
Oh by the way all you valiant republican partisans out there, just remember- if you don't stand up against this type of stuff...

elect Roy Blunt for Majority Leader. He's using pork to get himself elected house majority, just like Tom Delay did....

Do we need, instead, the same process in place for a democrat?

by turnerbroadcasting 2006-01-26 02:42AM | 0 recs
Is there a problem with the question?
I wonder how the results would have changed if the question was asked as "Do you happen to know which party controlled the United States House of Representatives before the elections (this/last) month?"

First, there may be a small percentage (although probably 50% in Washington state) who might be answering based on control of the Washington State House of Representatives.  Second, I don't know if a distracted voter replying to a survey while watching their kids or watching tv out of the corner of their eye is going to equate having the "most members" in the house with "controlling" the house.  Although we live in a two party society, having the most members is in fact not the same thing as "controlling" the house.

That said, still fascinating numbers.  And almost certainly still mostly valid.

by garys 2006-01-25 10:40AM | 0 recs
The real GOP strategy is electoral THEFT
Bush did NOT get more votes than Kerry.

It does not help us to inflict the damage repeatedly on ourselves, and it does not help when you try to apply logic to a situation to find the solution when its logic based on a false premise. That can only lead to a false conclusion.

If we want to stop losing elections we have to stop them from employing their main electoral strategy; stealing elections by 1000 and 1 methods.

1) Media Release: January 16, 2005 by the National Election Data Archive

The Gun is Smoking - 2004 Ohio Precinct-Level Exit Poll Data Show Virtually Irrefutable Evidence of Vote Miscount

There is significant controversy about whether the 2004 presidential election was conducted fairly and its votes counted correctly. According to results of the major national election exit poll conducted for the National Election Pool by Edison/Mitofsky (E/M), Kerry won Ohio's pivotal vote, though the official tally gave the state, and thus the presidency, to Bush. The conduct of Ohio's election was formally debated by Congress in January 2005.

The National Election Data Archive (NEDA) is the first mathematical team to release a valid scientific analysis of the precinct-level 2004 Ohio presidential exit poll data "The Gun is Smoking: 2004 Ohio Precinct-Level Exit Poll Data Show Virtually Irrefutable Evidence of Vote Miscount" available at NEDA's analysis provides significant evidence of an outcome-altering vote miscount.

The analysis is based on the most accurate statistical method yet devised for determining whether exit poll error, random variations, or vote count manipulation cause the discrepancies between exit polls and official vote tallies.  This analysis method was made public recently by NEDA in "Vote Miscounts or Exit Poll Error? New Mathematical Function for Analyzing Exit Poll Discrepancy" available at

Exit Polls were conducted in 49 of Ohio's 11,360 precincts.  At least 40% of Ohio's polled precincts show statistically significant differences between Kerry's exit poll percent and official vote count percent.  35% of these exit polls overestimated the Kerry official vote share.  This is five times the number expected.  Three of the most glaring examples are:

  1. In E/M precinct 27, with an estimated 100 respondents, Kerry's official vote count was 29% less than his exit poll share,  creating a 58% difference between Kerry and Bush exit poll and official vote margins. There is less than a one in 867,205,500 chance of this occurring due to chance.

  2. In E/M precinct 25, with an estimated 62 respondents, Kerry's official vote count was 28% less than his exit poll share, creating a 56% difference between Kerry and Bush exit poll and official vote margins. There is less than a one in 234,800 chance of this occurring due to chance.

  3. In E/M precinct 48, with an estimated 100 respondents, Kerry's official vote was 16% less than his exit poll share, creating a 32% difference between Kerry and Bush exit poll and official vote margins. There is less than a one in 17,800 chance of this occurring due to chance.

There are also two precincts where the Bush official vote count is significantly less than the Bush exit poll share. The number of significant discrepancies and the pattern of Ohio's discrepancy shown in the NEDA report provide strong support for the conclusion that vote count errors converted a Kerry win to a Bush win.

New electronic voting equipment without voter verified paper ballots, implemented under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, makes it easier for a small number of people to manipulate vote counts and nearly impossible to independently audit vote count accuracy.  Virtually every county in America today publicly reports its vote counts in a way that hides evidence of miscounts.  This allows those with access (whether authorized or not) to manipulate or make mistakes in vote counting with negligible possibility of detection.

Without accurate elections, America is not a democracy.  NEDA urges the media to publicize the results of this report and its recommendations, in order to return to the American people their right to determine the country's leaders.

The National Election Data Archive is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to scientifically investigate the accuracy of elections through the creation and analysis of a database containing precinct-level vote-type election data for the entire United States.  By making detailed election data publicly available NEDA furthers its goal of  providing the means for independent analysts to evaluate the accuracy of vote counts in time to ensure that properly elected candidates are sworn into office following future elections.

For further information contact:
Kathy Dopp, MS Mathematics, NEDA, President 435-658-4657 or Ron Baiman, PhD, Economics, NEDA, Vice President,

National Election Data Archive (NEDA)

2) From the on-line review;

"In his new book renowned critic and political commentator Mark Crispin Miller argues that it wasn't moral values that swung the election-it was theft. While the greatest body of evidence comes from the key state of Ohio-where the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee found an extraordinary onslaught of Republican-engineered vote suppression, election-day irregularities, old-fashioned intimidation tactics, and illegal counting procedures-similar practices (and occasionally worse ones) were applied in Florida, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and even New York. A huge array of anomalies, improper practices, and blatant violations of the law all, by a truly remarkable coincidence, happened to swing in the Bush ticket's favor.

This pattern-not one overwhelming fraud but thousands of little ones-is, in Miller's view, the new Republican electoral strategy."


We have to stop pretending to ourselves its still business as usual and if only can only arrange the deck chairs on the USS electoral Titanic the right way next time the election outcome will not find us sinking into another GOP-stolen whirlpool.

Another uncomfortable fact for you people with your heads in the sand.

9/11 was an inside job. The WTC buildings were brought down with multiple massive demolition explosions, the two aircraft that hit the Pentagon simultaneously were a Global Hawk and a missile from the Pentagon automated defense system, and the aircraft over Pennsylvania was shot down.

Do you really think this situation we are in requries nothing more than a little fine tuning of  our electoral message and crossing our fingers and hoping that the independent voter will have a clue next time?

by leschwartz 2006-01-25 11:03AM | 0 recs
Re: The real GOP strategy is electoral THEFT
"Bush did NOT get more votes than Kerry."

Whatever. The point is that almost everyone thinks he did get more votes than Kerry.

But I promise to never talk about anything except this forever and ever. Amen.

by Chris Bowers 2006-01-25 11:08AM | 0 recs
Re: The real GOP strategy is electoral THEFT

You always do great work, but when if ever are you going to be able to factor in the corrected vote counts when we all know the election was stolen?

I think if you could do that your commentary would start from another perspective entirely.

We have to stop pretending the situation now is or ever can be again, business as usual.

by leschwartz 2006-01-25 11:20AM | 0 recs
Re: The real GOP strategy is electoral THEFT
I'll consider your words. Thanks for hijacking this htread.
by Chris Bowers 2006-01-25 11:39AM | 0 recs
Great Analyis
Posts like this are why MyDD is one of my most visited blogs!

That site looks to be a real treasure trove.  Maybe homework can wait until later...

by KansasNate 2006-01-25 11:42AM | 0 recs
These figures are stunning, and are an important message to Democrats. My belief is that the very people we need are also among the less-informed. We need to demonstrate the tie between their own lives and the fortunes of the Democratic party.
by sdedeo 2006-01-25 12:19PM | 0 recs
Rove knows this - read Bush's statements
From the way Bush has always spoken about "Congress" as if it wasn't a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party I've thought this kind of gross misperception was possible - but thanks for the data to prove it.

This level of misinformation among the public explains why Bush always speaks of "going to Congress" as if he was having to twist the arm of Tip O'Neil - who we know is long deceased.  Karl Rove has Bush use Congress as a foil he has to oppose, not his alter ego.

What's the data on people who think Saddam and 9/11 are related?

by IdaMena 2006-01-25 12:28PM | 0 recs
Independents = Uninterested
These are the people probably not voting in interim elections.  Its great to find a stat that shows what I've thought for a while.

That's why Democrats should be searching for that 45% of the electorate that remains to be claimed: the people who don't vote (actually higher in interim elections, though I don't have the stats right now).  If they move to the left and propose bold strategies, more voters will feel they have a stake in the elections.  If there are two similar choices, although politically interested people can see huge differences, there will be low voter turnout.

by John Nicosia 2006-01-25 01:42PM | 0 recs
I don't understand
The question asks, "Do you know . . . ?" which is a Yes-or-No question. The answers to that surely can't be classified as "correct" and "incorrect"! Are the results, which sum to 100% in each year, just a classification of the follow-up question, i.e., a classification of answers by people who said "Yes, I do know"?
by SqueakyRat 2006-01-25 03:54PM | 0 recs
This holds zero surprise for me.
Yeah, I'm not at all surprised, because the Republicans have knowingly exploited this for most of the last decade. I swear, even though they control both houses with record GOP majorities, they still get out there on the hustings and run against the "Democrat Congress". They spent so many years investing in voter "education" such that anything wrong in their lives can be connected to an activist liberal Congress, they couldn't throw it away -- and amazingly, it still works.

I've debated Bush administration policies -- executive acts -- and had people tell me "That was a law the Democrats passed".

It's twisted, but I think it's fundamentally true.

by Dan Hartung 2006-01-25 04:20PM | 0 recs
Promising news for this year?
From Democracy Corps November 16-20, 2005:

Q.30 Do you know which political party controls the U.S. Congress? (IF YES) Do you believe it is the Democrats or the Republicans?

Yes, Democrats........5
Yes, Republicans.....81
(Yes, Split)...............-

by ilovelieberman 2006-01-25 05:37PM | 0 recs
Meaning of "Incorrect"?
Unfortunately, the NES site groups all incorrect, "don't know" and no-answer responses together. I can't draw any conclusions from these numbers if I don't know how the 72% ignorant answers in 2002 break down. If 70% said "don't know" and 2% "Democrats", it shows awful apathy and ignorance, but nothing inconsistent with most polls about people's general knowledge (from geography and history to evolution to investments). But if 30% said "don't know" and 42% said "Democrats", that would show a much worse situation - not just a lack of knowledge, but a positive belief in the counter-factual.

Is a breakdown of non-correct responses available?

by enfant terrible 2006-01-26 05:40AM | 0 recs
Of course...
...this was all before Stephen Colbert's invaluable "Better Know a District"  series. Once he's done, everyone will know who controls Congress.
by danielj 2006-01-26 08:03AM | 0 recs
Now -- for extra credit
Compare polling data and actual election results to see if the accuracy of polling changes in anyway that correlates to voter "knowledge" of party control.  one expect the polls to be more accurate when the people are better informed...but then again...
by David in Burbank 2006-01-26 08:34AM | 0 recs
In today's Baltimore Sun...
...I read a column by Thomas Sowell showing that the other side understands the importance of party ID and Congressional approval ratings very well.

In his column, Sowell bemoans the Abramoff scandal and how corrupt career politicians become.  He once again brings up term limits and legislation to prevent anyone from making politics a career.

He never says the word "Republican" once.

by howie14 2006-01-26 09:08AM | 0 recs


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