The Dimwits are Always with us

I don’t recall ever hearing the term “low-information voter” before this year, but I have been familiar with the concept for more than a half-century. Low-information voters are those who know nothing about politics and politicians, but who insist on voting anyway.

Both Republicans and Democrats are using the term to describe the bulk of the people who voted for the other party’s candidate in the 2012 presidential election. And it is true that they can be found on both sides of the political spectrum.
Some observers found it impossible to understand how there could still be voters who hadn’t yet decided between the polar opposites Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as the campaign reached its final days. However, to me it was easy enough to understand if one is familiar with low-information voters.

The low-information voters have always been with us, but you may have known them by other names. While taking a presidential poll in Philadelphia during the 1960 election campaign, I encountered many such voters, and coined the term “dimwit fringe” to describe them when I wrote a magazine article about the experience.

I’m not so sure that they represent only a fringe in today’s political environment. It appears that they have captured some of the middle ground as well, although I can’t speak with authority, because that opinion poll I conducted 52 years ago was my last.

I hope I don’t have to remind you that John F. Kennedy ran against, and beat, Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. It was one of the more interesting match-ups of my lifetime, and I decided to poll the citizens of Philadelphia for a local newspaper where I worked.
I correctly predicted that Kennedy would beat Nixon in that city by an unprecedented margin, but to me that was not the most interesting part of the story. What was more interesting was how horribly uninformed many of the prospective voters seemed.

Because the Kennedy-Nixon race was so close nationwide – decided by a margin of two-tenths of one percent of the electorate – and because so many voters were so obviously confused about the candidates, I came up with the hypothesis that the election may actually have been decided by accident.

For example, I interviewed one voter who said that he was voting for Kennedy because the Communists helped Nixon to become vice president. You could say that this was true, but only in a twisted sense. Nixon moved up from congressman to senator largely because of his attacks on Communism, and as a senator from California, a large state, he attracted Dwight Eisenhower’s attention when the general was picking a running-mate.

Another voter said that she was voting for Kennedy because he was born in England, and therefore an authority on foreign affairs. Kennedy’s father had been the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, but Kennedy, like all presidential candidates before 2008 (and maybe even after), was born in this country.

The fact that Kennedy had chosen Lyndon Johnson as his running mate seemed a trifle risky at the time, because Johnson, a southerner, might alienate black voters. But half the blacks I interviewed had either never heard of Johnson, or had no opinion about him. One black man said: “Oh, Jackson (sic) is a nice guy.”

One retired gentleman told me that he looked askance at Kennedy, because “his wife isn’t cultured enough to sit in the White House.” I don’t know how well you remember Jackie Kennedy as First Lady, but she oozed culture from every pore — annoyingly so.

A production-line worker told me he was wary of Nixon because, in watching the TV debates, he discovered that “Nixon ain’t got no smile on his face.”

As to the religious question – the fact that Kennedy was a Roman Catholic – a taxi driver told me: “Bring the Pope over. Who cares?”

An office clerk, sizing up Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, who was Eisenhower’s UN ambassador, scornfully observed: “He only knows one thing: the United Nations.”

I ran into an elderly white man with black neighbors who didn’t know what the term “civil rights” meant, and a housewife who hadn’t the slightest idea what either Kennedy or Nixon had said about foreign policy.

I came away thanking heaven for the two-party system. If the voters weren’t pretty much forced to limit themselves to a choice between two candidates, if there were multiple candidates with a chance to win, who knows who we might have gotten as our leader.

On second thought, what are we to make of the last two presidential elections?

Author Bio:

Arthur Louis spent more than forty years as a print journalist, with the Philadelphia Inquirer, McGraw-Hill, Fortune magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, but he is not asking for sympathy. He is the author of two non-fiction books: The Tycoons, and Journalism and Other Atrocities, as well as a novel, The Little Champ. In retirement, he has decided unilaterally that he is a profound political pundit.
Author website: http://bernardgoldberg.com
  • Gizmo

    This is exactly why we need some sort of limiting factors for voting. I know this is not “PC”, but it’s nuts that anyone that breathes (well, even THAT’s doubtful if from Chicago, NY or….) It’s bad enough that we can’t even require a photo ID, but since we’re picking the POTUS who’s supposed to be even a “leader of the World”, shouldn’t there be at least SOME modicum of reasonable intelligence/wisdom in voting? One of the nain reasons that I personally endorsethis type thing is because the many times I’ve worked polls there have been “homes” that actually bring their residents in to VOTE! These guys come in with stickers (Democratic, of course!) all over their wheelchairs, jackest, etc. and we were FORCED to allow them to vote even though they couldn’t communicate, they couldn’t do much but drool & vocalize, couldn’t even SIGN! The “helpers” would help them sighn into the voter log, AND we were to allow these “helpers” into the voting booths with them to “help” them choose! How many poll rules were broken? MANY!!! Can they make intelligent decisions? No way! Yet we were told to “accommodate” & not argue the point…. Do you think that Hitler or Stalin allowed these people to vote? Before they gassed or murdered or experimented on them?!?!?!

    Supposedly this is why the electoral college is in place, but even that becomes a joke when States grant all-to-winner instead of electoral volume.

  • Ghostwriter

    Low information voters are the ones that only watch Fox News and nothing else. They only get the Republican side of the issues.

  • http://twitter.com/richard_mcenroe richard mcenroe

    The most common Google Search in the last days before the election was “Who’s Running for President”?

    • artlouis

      Perhaps people knew, but couldn’t believe it.

  • RickonhisHarleyJohnson

    For years, I’ve said people should have to pass a test to qualify to vote. But what bothers me more is that most people don’t have a philosophy about what a federal government should be.

    If they believe in larger, more regulatory govt.; then vote Democrat. If they believe in smaller, less regulatory govt.; then vote Republican. They could, at least, give it this much thought. Like your 1960 opinion poll, today too many people haven’t a clue what they believe; yet still vote.

    Then there are the ones who only watch NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and movies. They get only a leftist perspective and like sheep – fall in line. They remind me of the currently running State Farm commercial – “they can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true… Bonjour”!

    • artlouis

      I just hope that the number of idiots on both sides is equal, because I don’t think any reform would work. A test sounds good in theory, but who would draft it, and whatever it said, it would be bound to attract violent opposition.

      • RickonhisHarleyJohnson

        Oh, I know a test isn’t workable. It’s just me, again wishing I had my magic wand!

  • DOOM

    A better question to ponder is on what planet are Obama and Romney polar opposites?

  • pborden41

    Frankly, this is one reason I am less than enthusiastic about get-out-the-vote campaigns.

    • artlouis

      Very good point. If people aren’t fired up to vote, maybe they should be left alone.