Can you imagine that a voter will walk into a polling place in Illinois on Nov. 4 and not know that Bruce Rauner is a Republican challenger for governor or that Pat Quinn is the Democratic incumbent or that Jim Oberweis is a GOP challenger for U.S. Senator and Dick Durbin is the Democratic incumbent? Does that seem outlandish to you that anyone motivated enough to vote would not know those basic facts?
What makes you think that most voters follow politics closely enough to understand which party controls the U.S. House and which party controls the U.S. Senate let alone which controls the houses of the state legislature in Springfield?
Would it surprise you to know that many voters in 2008 believed that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress on election day even though Democrats has been in the majority for two years? Why? Because George W. Bush was president and many voters thought Congress must be the same party as the president. Do you find that impossible to believe? Well studies of election day 2008 seem to indicate that is what many voters thought.
It is because voters are stupid or just not very well informed? Does the brand name of a party count for more than the brand name of an individual candidate? Do voters necessarily blame all Democratic candidates if they disapprove of the job that Democratic President Barack Obama is doing? Do voters read and understand the party label printed above the name of a candidate on the ballot or do they rely more on a vague positive or negative impression of the name of a candidate?
Readers of political blogs such as this one are often too inclined to assume a great deal of awareness on the part of voters. The Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan studied voter awareness for many years and found that a great number of people could not name the incumbent governor of a state or one of the two incumbent U.S. Senators. Even far fewer (barely 25 percent) knew the name of their local representative in Congress. The number of voters who knew the name of their state legislator often fell below 9 percent in the decade of the 1990s. Does the very low level of awareness on the part of so many voters surprise you or not and does it scare you or not?
Does this low level of information on the part of voters contribute to the heavy use of negative advertising in campaigns? The theory is that unless negative information is hammered into the pubic consciusness, it will not stick.
Poltical scientists and good government advocates can fret and worry about how little voters really understand the issues in a campaign, but in the end people still have a right to vote no matter if they are well informed or not. The idea that a winning candidate has a "mandate" to push for one policy or another because of an election result is a little exaggerated and a little silly given the minimal information level of voters unless there has been a great deal of public attention raised during a hot contest for an office.
I am not saying that polls that measure name ID or horse race numbers are worthless. I am only saying that survey research that measures general attitdudes and concerns is more useful than horse race snap shots of data.
In 2008 the slogan of the Obama campaign was "hope and change." It was a very superficial but still effective message to communicate in order to cut through all the noise of news coverage and campaign commercials. The slogan "Time for a change" has been used many times in American politics before and since World War II and has often been effective when voters only have the vaguest idea that change is what they want.
Very surprisingly in the age of TV and digital social media, a direct personal recommendation from one friend to another still seems to be an effective way to influence voters. If that sounds like very old-fashioned retail politics, it is. But at low level offices such as state lawmaker where information is normally scanty, the personal recommendation of a friend or even a precinct leader can still be important.
Campaign strategists often say that candidates already have 80 to 90 percent of the votes they will win on election day then they announce or are nominated but the next few points that can be influenced are the margin between a win or a loss.
Among the lessons for campaign workers to be learned from low information voters are that one should not assume a great deal of information about a candidate has broken through the noise but also one should not under estimate the impact of a personal call or door to door visit. Just because campaigns spend millions of dollars on paid ads, direct mail, and social media, don't forget to respect your neighbors and friends who do not follow politics as closely as you do every day. They lead their own busy lives and when they care enough to come out to vote, their vote is also important even if they know much less than you do about issues and candidates.