(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a column appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
Ken Blake says one of the probable reasons Tennesseans seem to know a lot less about their state government and politics than about national issues is the shortage of heuristic cues. Another, of course, is the media.
Ask Tennesseans for an opinion about President Barack Obama, for example, and pollsters almost always get a definitive answer. But ask for an opinion about Gov. Bill Haslam, and a substantial number of residents don’t have a clue.
Blake is director of the Middle Tennessee State University poll, which reported on this last week, though that wasn’t exactly the emphasized point.
Most of the attention was on the not-so-surprising discovery that most of the opinions of Obama, 63 percent, are negative. Only about 6 percent had no opinion. For Haslam, the favorable opinion was 51 percent. But those wondering “Has who?” or otherwise expressing no opinion made up a bit more than 30 percent.
Similarly, a bunch of Tennesseans have no opinion on our state Legislature. And some of those who do, based on unscientific anecdotes reported by legislators themselves, often confuse Congress with the state-level lawmakers, calling them to, say, urge that they vote against “Obamacare” or oppose the Afghanistan war.
When the pollsters asked whether respondents were aware of the state’s new law requiring a photo ID to vote, which is probably the hottest October topic in Tennessee politics, 28.4 percent said they’d never heard of the thing. Of those that had heard about it, there was considerable confusion on details, such as the type of ID required.
Incidentally, the MTSU poll didn’t ask whether people who were aware of the new law thought it was a good thing or not. Republicans legislators who support the law say they polled before enactment and say it polled through the roof — better than 90 percent approval.
There are suspicions that GOP pollsters asked the question something like, “Would you favor preventing fraud by having voters present photo identification?” That could skew the results, observes Blake cautiously, since “not too many people are in favor of voter fraud” and listeners could figure that was part of the question. On the other hand, MTSU includes in its survey people who aren’t even registered to vote. The GOP concentrates on registered voters.
Blake says MTSU didn’t ask an approval question on photo ID because he didn’t know there was a repeal effort under way until the poll itself was already getting under way. Maybe next time.
Be that as it may, the heightened state of unawareness about Tennessee politics versus national politics, Blake suspects, may rest on media attention. At the national level, there’s a virtual media mob scene.
“We have a lot of really large, pressing national issues,” he said. “There’s a lot of media coverage of those issues — wars, the economy — so there’s just a lot more media content that people pay attention to.”
On the other hand, you can count full-time members of the state Capitol Hill Press Corps on your fingers (self included) while media in communities around the state are reasonably focused on local happenings, political and otherwise.
Then there are those heuristic cues. Coverage of national issues, Blake says, contains “a lot of partisan-based information” catering to a partisan audience, be it Democratic or Republican. So most people who align with parties immediately know where they stand and have an opinion — as in, “If Obama’s for it, then I’m against it.”
“When you have that sort of partisanship in the conversation, it makes it easier for people to have an opinion,” he said.
In other words, people have a cue of the heuristic variety on where they stand because of their source of information. That rings true, at least to some extent.
But there are doubtless other factors. Haslam, for example, seems to lack an opinion on many issues — a devotee of ambiguity, if you will. This may be seen as an attribute or a shortcoming, but in either case the lack of an opinion doesn’t inspire strong opinions about him.
People are cue-less. Most probably know he’s a Republican, but then some of our past governors who were Republican were widely suspected of moderation. Some Democrats, too. And, well, let’s acknowledge that some of our most hot-button state issues — voter ID, “don’t say gay” and incentive payments to corporations — may be interesting but do not reach the level of war-and-peace decisions.
An old adage proclaims ignorance is bliss. But I don’t know whether that’s true. But maybe if you polled it, the adage is popular enough to provide a heuristic cue.