Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hill readers: How weird are you?

By Mark Mellman, The Hill

We each like to believe we are pretty normal, pretty much like everyone else. Other people know what we know; we see things the way most other people do.

However, the simple truth is that if you are reading this paper, you are most likely a bit of a freak. And if you are not at the freakish edge of the public at-large, you are certainly out of step with fellow Hill readers, because the rest of us are quite different from most of America.

It’s evident in what we pay attention to. Whatever our partisan affiliation, we watched with rapt attention as Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat last year. Pew research revealed that only 36 percent of our fellow Americans joined us in paying attention to that stunning turnaround. By December, we were engrossed in every twist and turn of the debate over the Bush tax cuts. Just 37 percent of the public paid attention to that. The midterms were all-consuming for us, but fewer than half the public focused even on the results of our biennial exercise in democracy while, at the height of the election season itself, a mere 29 percent were paying close attention to news about the elections.

Of course, Americans do not tune out all news, all the time. Sixty percent followed the earthquake in Haiti, 49 percent were fixated on the trapped miners in Chile. Speaking of Chile, there was about as much interest in news about December’s cold snap as in November’s election results.

Face it — we concentrate on a different set of issues than does the public.

Those differences in attention generate differences in knowledge. I will wager that every single person reading this column knows that John Boehner will become Speaker of the House, knowledge shared by just 38 percent of our fellow citizens. Indeed, 40 percent do not even realize that Republicans will have a majority in the new House. Pew also informs us that nearly one in five Americans believe the much reviled, former BP CEO Tony Hayward is actually the Prime Minister of Great Britain — more than can correctly identify David Cameron as the true incumbent.

Having more information gives us more opinions than typical voters. Again, I’d bet all of us had a view about START. However, only 16 percent of Americans heard a lot about the nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and nearly a third heard nothing at all. Even among those who claimed some knowledge before the Senate vote, Pew tells us almost a quarter had no opinion on whether the treaty should be ratified. Some one in six had no preference on the fate of the Bush tax cuts or on whether gays should be permitted to serve in the military. Heading into the election, a CBS/New York Times poll found nearly half the electorate holding no opinion whatsoever about the Tea Party. How many Hill readers fell into that category?

Sometimes the unique knowledge of the cognoscenti translates into very different perspectives on issues than those of the voters. While Republicans and Democrats disagree on the relative priorities implicated in the trade-off, partisans would tend to agree that balancing the budget requires either raising taxes or cutting programs. Three-quarters of the electorate starts the debate in a very different place, denying the need for trade-offs, asserting that if politicians only made smarter decisions we could eliminate the deficit without either cutting important programs or raising taxes.

We are weird, though we often wear our strangeness as a smug superiority, seeing our knowledge as a blessing. In many ways it is. However, when it comes to communicating with the public, knowledge can be a curse — a curse we will examine in a forthcoming column.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.

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