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The State of Political Knowledge in the State of Michigan

Using the Fall 2015 round of the State of the State Survey, we collected original data on Michigan resident's political knowledge. We asked a series of questions related to the parties that control the state government, the size of the chambers of Congress and the supreme court, the identity of various political leaders, and staffing and term limits. Our overall results suggest that Michiganders have a modest level of knowledge about the officials and institutions that govern their lives.

Figure 1 is a histogram that shows the distribution of the number of correct answers. These results come from how people responded to eight multiple choice questions. We asked, for example, what job or political office Rick Snyder currently held and gave people five options: U.S. representative, state supreme court justice, governor, ambassador, or none of the above. We also asked some questions where there were a smaller number of choices (e.g., the party of the current governor).

Because responses were provided via multiple choice, it is necessary to provide a baseline for comparing real (as opposed to guessing-based) political knowledge. If someone was simply randomly guessing, we would expect them to get a total of 2.15 questions correct by chance alone, which we denote with the red dashed vertical line in the figure. 

As the figure reveals, however, respondents in our sample evince considerably higher levels of knowledge than we would expect to see by guessing alone. To wit, respondents answered, on average, about five out of eight questions correctly. Perfect scores were rare (about 6% of respondents), but so too were people who couldn’t answer any questions correctly (about 4%). Fully 60% of Michiganders would have “passed” our quiz, earning a score of at least five correct responses.

In addition to seeing significant variation in the levels of knowledge, we also observe clear differences in what aspect of political knowledge respondents had. For example, 86% of respondents were able to correctly identify that Rick Snyder was the Governor of Michigan. By contrast, few were able to correctly state that the state Senate has 38 members and that the state House of Representatives has 110 members; less than 2% and 1%, respectively.

Figure 2 provides a more general view, displaying the percentage of respondents correctly answering the multiple choice and partisan identification knowledge items asked. On the less encouraging end, fewer than 30% of residents were able to correctly link Robert Young to the state supreme court, less than 35% knew that there are 7 members on that court, and just over 45% knew that state legislators are subject to term limits.

More optimistically, greater than half of state residents can identify the party in control of the senate (≈ 55%), the house of representatives (≈ 60%), and the governor's office (≈ 75%). And, about 75% knew that Debbie Stabenow is a U.S. Senator.

We also examine whether there are differences in levels of knowledge across party identification and the strength of one's party identification. Figure 3 looks at the average number of questions answered correctly for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.  Democrats correctly answered 4.8 questions on average, Independents 4.3, and Republicans just over 5.0. In terms of systematic differences, we cannot say that Democrats differ from either Independents or Republicans. We can say, however, that Independents answered significantly fewer questions correctly compared to Republicans. 

We also seek to determine if partisan strength has an impact on knowledge. In Figure 3, we combine levels of party strength; that is, people who identify as strong Democrats and those who lean toward Democrats are considered in tandem. Below, in Figure 4, we directly compare strong identifiers (i.e., both strong Republicans and strong Democrats) versus weak identifiers (weak identifiers and leaners in both directions). When comparing the average number of correct answers for each group, strong identifiers answered ≈ 0.7 more questions correctly than did weak identifiers (5.3 versus 4.6, respectively). Despite partisanship itself not representing a large effect on knowledge, Michigan residents who more strongly identify with their party are more knowledgeable than their less associated counterparts.