RALEIGH — One of the cheapest shots in politics is to claim that only the unschooled and ignorant could possibly side with the other team. Both Democrats and Republicans make the claim about the other party. Democrats ridicule Republican-leaning voters for being dumb rednecks and undereducated boobs. Republicans ridicule Democratic-leaning voters for being empty-headed kids and school dropouts. Fox News viewers think MSNBC viewers are sheep. MSNBC viewers think Fox viewers are fools.
The real fools are those who think electoral politics is an intelligence test.
There are plenty of smart, informed people in North Carolina and elsewhere who vote Democratic, read The New York Times in addition to their local papers, watch MSNBC, and listen to NPR. There are plenty of smart, informed people in North Carolina and elsewhere who vote Republican, read The Wall Street Journal in addition to their local papers, watch Fox News, and listen to talk radio. If you want to know the characteristics that strongly predict political preferences, you won’t find them in educational credentials or news attentiveness.
Let’s start with that last point. Most carefully constructed surveys do not find substantial partisan differences when it comes to knowledge of current events. For example, a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center asked respondents 13 questions on such topics as same-sex marriage, the Middle East, the U.S. Senate, the Federal Reserve, and education reform. Republicans gave an average of 6.5 correct answers. Democrats gave an average of 6.4 correct answers. Independents? They gave an average of 6.6 correct answers. Democrats, Republicans, and independents were also closely grouped in Pew’s January 2013 survey of public knowledge, while previous surveys have shown, at best, a small Republican edge.
Now, take a look at the 2012 exit poll in North Carolina, where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama by 2 percentage points. Republicans are right to point out that Barack Obama won the high-school dropout vote, 57 percent to 40 percent. But that’s not much of an argument. Dropouts represented only 5 percent of the electorate. In the remaining categories — high school graduates, voters who attended college but didn’t graduate, those who graduated college, and those with postgraduate degrees — the differences in presidential preference just weren’t very large.
Among North Carolinians with at least some college education, for example, Romney edged Obama by a 51-48 margin. Among college graduates, Obama edged Romney by a 50-49 margin. Given the survey’s sample size, these are not statistically significant differences.
Education isn’t a major dividing line in politics at the moment, at least not in North Carolina. But age is. Young voters between 18 and 29 voted overwhelmingly (67-32) for Obama. Voters over 65 voted overwhelmingly (64-35) for Romney.
Another major dividing line is religiosity. Among North Carolinians who attend church at least once a week, Romney got 56 percent of the vote. Among those who never attend church, Obama won 64 percent. Family structure matters a lot, too. Married voters went 60-39 for Romney. Married voters with children also picked Romney, by 57-43. Unmarried voters went 61-37 for Obama.
Here’s a particularly interesting one: 55 percent of native North Carolinians picked Romney. So did those voters who moved to North Carolina sometime before 2002, although the gap was just outside the margin of error (52-47). On the other hand, 62 percent of recent arrivals to North Carolina picked Obama.
I suppose it’s natural to assume that if a person disagrees with you, it must be because that person is not as informed or logical as you are. But natural impulses don’t always serve us well. And political differences don’t, by and large, arise because of differences in information or education level, according to the preponderance of empirical data.
When politicians or political commentators resort to insulting the other side’s intelligence, that signals either that they have run out of real arguments to make or that they have run out of the patience necessary to continue the debate. Neither is a flattering revelation.
John Hood is executive director of the John Locke Foundation.