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Voters Say Election Full of Misleading and False Information

December 9, 2010

Poll Also Finds Voters Were Misinformed on Key Issues

Full report(PDF)
Questionnaire with Findings, Methodology (PDF)

Following the first election since the Supreme Court has struck down limits on election-related advertising, a new poll finds that 9 in 10 voters said that in the 2010 election they encountered information they believed was misleading or false, with 56% saying this occurred frequently. Fifty-four percent said that it had been more frequent than usual, while just three percent said it was less frequent than usual, according to the poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, based at the University of Maryland, and Knowledge Networks.

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Equally significant, the poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the key issues of the campaign. Such misinformation was correlated with how people voted and their exposure to various news sources.

Voters' misinformation included beliefs at odds with the conclusions of government agencies, generally regarded as non-partisan, consisting of professional economists and scientists.

•   Though the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created 2.0-5.2 million jobs, only 8% of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Most (68%) believed that economists estimate that it only created or saved a few jobs and 20% even believed that it resulted in job losses.
•   Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.
•   Though the Department of Commerce says that the US economy began to recover from recession in the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since then, only 44% of voters thought the economy is starting to recover, while 55% thought the economy is still getting worse.
•   Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45% of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12%) or that scientists are evenly divided (33%).

Other key points of misinformation among voters were:

•   40% of voters believed incorrectly that the TARP legislation was initiated under Barack Obama, rather than George Bush
•   31% believed it was proven true that the US Chamber of Commerce spent large amounts of money it had raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates
•   54% believed that there were no tax cuts in the stimulus legislation
•   86% assumed their taxes had gone up (38%) or stayed the same (48%), while only 10% were aware that their taxes had gone down since 2009
•   53% thought that the bailout of GM and Chrysler occurred only under Obama, though it was initiated under Bush

Clay Ramsay, of WorldPublicOpinion.org commented, "While we do not have data to make a clear comparison to the past, this high level of misinformation and the fact that voters perceived a higher than usual level of false and misleading information, suggests that the increased flow of money into political advertising may have contributed to a higher level of misinformation."

The poll also found significant differences depending how people voted. Those who voted Republican were more likely than those who voted Democratic to believe that: most economists have concluded that the health care law will increase the deficit (voted Republican 73%, voted Democratic 31%); the American economy is still getting worse (72% to 36%); the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (67% to 42%); most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (62% to 26%); and it is not clear that Obama was born within the United States (64% to 18%)

On the other hand those who voted Democratic were more likely to incorrectly believe that: it was proven to be true that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending large amounts of foreign money to support Republican candidates (voted Democratic 57%, voted Republican 9%); Obama has not increased the level of troops in Afghanistan (51% to 39%); and Democratic legislators did not mostly vote in favor of TARP (56% to 14%).

In most cases those who had greater levels of exposure to news sources had lower levels of misinformation. There were, however, a number of cases where greater exposure to a particular news source increased misinformation on some issues.

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points). The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it--though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

There were cases with some other news sources as well. Daily consumers of MSNBC and public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) were higher (34 points and 25 points respectively) in believing that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates. Daily watchers of network TV news broadcasts were 12 points higher in believing that TARP was signed into law by President Obama, and 11 points higher in believing that most Republicans oppose TARP.

The poll of 848 Americans was fielded from November 6 to 15, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percent. It was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection. More technical information is available at http://www.knowledgenetworks.com/ganp/reviewer-info.html.

WorldPublicOpinion.org is a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and funded by the Calvert Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.


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