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July 03, 2012 12:04 PM What Supreme Court Ruling?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Sarah Kliff flags a key statistic from a new Kaiser survey:

41 percent of Americans unaware of a Supreme Court ruling on health care last week.

One of the most difficult things to keep front and center for everyone who cares passionately about politics — and for those who one way or another pay attention to politics for a living — is just how distant many Americans are from the day-to-day discussion that we all focus on so intensely. That’s part of why gaffes don’t really matter: people aren’t paying attention. It’s part of why general election debates don’t matter much: people aren’t paying attention. It’s why the “bully pulpit” is consistently overrated: people aren’t paying attention.

And remember that those who are paying attention are almost always the most partisan, and therefore the least likely to be affected by new information, at least at the level of vote choice. Yes, there are some true independents who are high-information voters, but very, very, few of them.

As I’ve said: this isn’t unique to politics — there are plenty of people who know nothing of football, or popular music, or what have you. The combination that makes politics unusual is that it’s very high visibility in the mass media; that political outcomes have massive effects on people’s lives whether they pay attention or not; and that a whole lot of the people who don’t pay much attention do tune in occasionally. I’m not sure what else qualifies…football is highly visible and many people do watch the Super Bowl without paying attention the rest of the year, but football doesn’t affect the lives of non-fans in any significant way. Science and technology certainly does affect people’s lives, but it’s a lot less visible in the mass media.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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