A new Pew News IQ survey yields some predictable results about the public’s knowledge of facts about politics and world affairs, but also a few surprises. Hillary Clinton’s nomination to be secretary of state is known by just about everyone — not too surprisingly. However, even at a time of great focus on Wall Street’s troubles, fewer than half were generally aware of where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is trading these days.
A total of 1,000 adults were interviewed Dec. 4-7 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and were asked to answer a series of 10 multiple choice questions about events and people in the news. Respondents answered an average of six correctly.
Following an election that generated great public interest, nearly nine-in-ten (87%) could correctly identify secretary of state as the job that President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Clinton to take on in his cabinet. More than eight-in-ten (82%) knew that the Democratic Party controls a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Majorities could correctly answer several other questions on topics that have been in the news. More than three quarters (76%) knew that Guantanamo Bay is the site of a U.S. Naval Base that houses a military prison for suspected terrorists. Nearly as many (72%) could identify Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, virtually the same number as knew this in August 2007.
But at a time when the ups and downs of Wall Street have been regular front page news, just 45% could correctly say that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was trading around 8,000 points. Respondents could choose from four possibilities.
Three other questions, meanwhile, showed evidence of increased public awareness compared with past surveys. Almost two-thirds (64%) were aware that gasoline taxes in the U.S. are lower than they are in Europe, up from 53% who knew this in 1989. A small majority (53%) correctly said that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is generally considered to be a conservative, up from 37% who answered correctly in February of 2007. That also is significantly higher than the 30% who could correctly say in 1989 that William Rehnquist, Robert’s predecessor as chief justice, was a conservative. A similar majority (52%) could identify Robert Gates as the secretary of defense, up from 41% who knew this in August of last year. Obama recently announced that Gates will stay on in the new administration.
In other questions, four-in-ten (40%) knew that around 4,200 U.S. military personnel have died thus far in Iraq. And 38% could correctly say that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of France.
Fluctuation in Knowledge of Troop Deaths
Awareness of the level of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq has fluctuated in recent months. At 40%, the current level of knowledge is the second-lowest recorded by Pew surveys. The question has been asked 11 times since 2004, and usually about half of the public can select the category containing the current number of troop deaths. However, in March 2008, the percentage able to do so plunged to 28%. That happened after a period of several months in which news attention to Iraq had greatly diminished.
In late March of 2008, the U.S. passed the grim milestone of 4,000 total fatalities. When the question was next asked on a survey in early April, the percentage able to answer correctly rose to its highest level, 60%. The decline in awareness since then has been greatest among older respondents and Republicans (down 27 percentage points in each group).
Who Did Well?
While very few people “aced” the quiz – just 7% answered all 10 questions correctly – about seven-in-ten (71%) got at least half the answers right and about one-third (34%) answered at least eight correctly. On average, respondents could correctly answer about six out of ten questions (mean 6.1; median 6.0).
As with previous knowledge quizzes, demographic groups differed significantly in how much they knew. Men correctly answered an average of 6.5 of the 10 questions; women answered an average of 5.7 questions. College graduates correctly answered an average of 7.3 questions; those with some college experience but no degree answered an average of 6.0 correctly. Those with no college experience answered 4.7 correctly. Older respondents were more knowledgeable than younger ones: respondents under age 30 answered 4.9 correctly, on average, while those 30 and older correctly answered six or more.
Though men score somewhat better than women overall, women and men are about equally likely to know that Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the U.S. House, the level of U.S. troop fatalities, and that Hillary Clinton has been nominated to be secretary of state. The largest gender difference in knowledge is the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial average (56% of men answered correctly, compared with 34% of women).
Republicans are more likely than Democrats and independents to know that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, and more Republicans and independents than Democrats are aware of the current level of the Dow. Democrats, Republicans and independents are about equally likely to know that the Democratic Party holds a majority of seats in the House, that approximately 4,200 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq, that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president of France, and that Robert Gates is the Secretary of Defense.
View topline questionnaire at pewresearch.org/politics.