what did young voters know and understand in 2012?

Many people assume that young adults are not prepared to vote knowledgeably. Only 24% of 12th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics. But, as CIRCLE explains in a new fact sheet (one of two that we released today), the NAEP Civics assessment only measures certain kinds of knowledge, and its definition of “proficient” is open to debate. The proficiency level looks like a precise statistical finding but is actually a value judgment.

Therefore, starting on the day after the 2012 Election, we surveyed 4,483 young Americans (ages 18-24), including oversamples of African American and Latino youth. We asked the entire sample whether they had voted (and for whom) and posed some general factual questions about the US political system.

We also asked respondents to choose one issue of particular interest to them. They were then asked to express their own opinion on this issue and to answer two factual questions about where President Obama and Governor Romney stood on the issue. Detailed information is here, but these are some major findings:

  • On some topics, young people were informed. More than three in four young voters could correctly answer at least one out of two factual questions about the candidates’ position on a campaign issue that they had chosen as important. And on many questions about the structure of the US government, they performed as well or better than older adults who have been asked similar questions in other polls.
  • On other topics, most young people were misinformed. For instance, a majority (51.2%) believed that the federal government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security, when in fact Social Security costs about 20 times more. But again, older adults have also been found to be widely misinformed on the same topics.
  • About one quarter of young voters were poorly informed about the campaign’s issues, and young people who did not vote were generally uninformed.
  • Young people who recalled that they had received high-quality civic education in schools were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system.That does not mean that civics causes higher turnout and more knowledge, because students who experience better civics may also have other advantages in their schools and communities. But the correlations are very strong and at least demonstrate that active and informed citizens tend to be people who had good civic education. Civics education was not related to partisanship or choice of candidate, and that may allay concerns that civics affects young people’s ideologies.
  • The level of misinformation was almost identical among young Romney supporters and young Obama supporters. But many more Romney voters held positions on issues that they knew contradicted the candidate’s positions. More than one quarter of Romney supporters chose the liberal position on the issue that they considered very important for the country. Even though Romney was defeated among 18-24s by 54.7%-28.1%, according to our poll, he got some of his votes despite his stance on issues.

The survey was funded by the Spencer Foundation, and the accompanying fact sheet was funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Both foundations, along with the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, are supporting CIRCLE’s Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, which will consider the data released today as well as other research on the 2012 election in developing its recommendations for how to enhance young people’s informed voting.

(Most of this post is cross-posted from CIRCLE’s site).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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