Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Question(s) of Political Knowledge



Political knowledge is a central concept in the study of public opinion and political behavior. Yet what the field collectively believes about this construct is based on dozens of studies using different indicators of knowledge. We identify two theoretically relevant dimensions: a temporal dimension that corresponds to the time when a fact was established and a topical dimension that relates to whether the fact is policy-specific or general. The resulting typology yields four types of knowledge questions. In an analysis of more than 300 knowledge items from late in the first decade of the 2000s, we examine whether classic findings regarding the predictors of knowledge withstand differences across types of questions. In the case of education and the mass media, the mechanisms for becoming informed operate differently across question types. However, differences in the levels of knowledge between men and women are robust, reinforcing the importance of including gender-relevant items in knowledge batteries.


Corresponding author

Jason Barabas is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794–4392 (
Jennifer Jerit is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794–4392 (
William Pollock is Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794–4392 (
Carlisle Rainey is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260 (


Hide All
Althaus, Scott L. 2003. Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics: Opinion Surveys and the Will of the People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Barabas, Jason. 2009. “Not the Next IRA: How Health Savings Accounts Shape Public Opinion.” Journal of Health Policy, Politics and Law 34 (April): 181217.
Barabas, Jason, and Jerit, Jennifer. 2009. “Estimating the Causal Effects of Media Coverage on Policy-Specific Knowledge.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (January): 7989.
Bartels, Larry M. 1996. “Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (February): 194230.
Bennett, Stephen Earl. 1989. “Trends in Americans’ Political Information, 19671987.” American Politics Quarterly 17 (4): 422–35.
Bennett, Stephen Earl, and Bennett, Linda L. M. 1993. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: American's Knowledge of Party Control of the House of Representatives, 19601964.” Political Research Quarterly 46 (1): 6780.
Bennett, Stephen Earl. 1988. “‘Know-Nothings’ Revisited: The Meaning of Political Ignorance Today.” Social Science Quarterly 69 (2): 476–90.
Berry, William D., DeMeritt, Jacqueline H. R., and Esarey, Justin. 2010. “Testing for Interaction in Binary Logit and Probit Models: Is a Product Term Essential?American Journal of Political Science 54 (January): 248–66.
Brambor, Thomas, Clark, William Roberts, and Golder, Matt. 2006. “Understanding Interaction Models: Improving Empirical Analyses.” Political Analysis 14: 6382.
Boudreau, Cheryl, and Lupia, Arthur. 2013. “Political Knowledge.” In Handbook of Experimental Political Science, eds. Druckman, James, Green, Donald P., Kuklinski, James H., and Lupia, Arthur. New York: Cambridge University Press, 171186.
Burns, Nancy, Kay, Schlozman, and Verba, Sidney. 2001. The Private Roots of Public Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Campbell, Andrea. 2002. “Self-Interest, Social Security, and the Distinctive Participation Patterns of Senior Citizens.” American Political Science Review 96 (Sept.): 565–74
Curran, James, Iyengar, Shanto, Lund, Anker Brink, and Salovaara-Moring, Inka. 2009. “Media Systems, Public Knowledge and Democracy: A Comparative Study.” European Journal of Communication 24 (1): 526.
Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Keeter, Scott. 1996. What Americans Know about Politics and Why it Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Keeter, Scott. 1993. “Measuring Political Knowledge: Putting First Things First.” American Journal of Political Science 37: 1179–206.
DeBell, Matthew. 2013. “Harder Than It Looks: Coding Political Knowledge on the ANES.” Political Analysis 21 (4): 393406.
Delli Carpini, Michael X., Keeter, Scott, and Kennamer, J. David. 1994. “Effects of the News Media Environment on Citizen Knowledge of State Politics and Government.” Journalism Quarterly 71 (Summer): 443–56.
Dolan, Kathleen. 2011. “Do Women and Men Know Different Things? Measuring Gender Differences in Political Knowledge.” Journal of Politics 73 (1): 97107.
Dow, Jay. 2009. “Gender Differences in Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Characteristics- Based and Returns-Based Differences.” Political Behavior 31 (1): 117–36.
Druckman, James. 2005. “Media Matter: How Newspapers and Television News Cover Campaigns and Influence Voters.” Political Communication 22 (Oct-Dec): 463–81.
Dunaway, Johanna, Branton, Regina P., and Abrajano, Marisa. 2010. “Agenda Setting, Public Opinion, and the Issue of Immigration Reform.” Social Science Quarterly 91 (2): 359–78.
Elo, Kimmo, and Rapeli, Lauri. 2010. “Determinants of Political Knowledge: The Effects of the Media on Knowledge and Information.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties 20 (1): 133–46.
Gelman, Andrew. 2008. “Scaling Regression Inputs by Dividing by Two Standard Deviations.” Statistics in Medicine. Statistics in Medicine 27: 2865–73.
Gelman, Andrew, and Hill, Jennifer. 2007. Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gibson, James J., and Caldiera, Gregory A.. 2009. “Knowing the Supreme Court? A Reconsideration of Public Ignorance of the High Court.” Journal of Politics 71: 429–21.
Gilens, Martin. 2001. “Political Ignorance and Collective Policy Preferences.” American Political Science Review 95 (June): 379–96.
Graber, Doris. 2001. Processing Politics: Learning from Television in an Internet Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Graber, Doris, and Holyk, Gregory G.. 2012. “Civic Knowledge and Audiovisual Learning.” In The Sage Handbook of Political Communication, eds. Semetko, Holli A. and Scammell, Margaret, 141–72.
Hansen, Susan. 1997. “Talking About Politics: Gender and Contextual Effects on Political Proselytizing.” Journal of Politics 59 (1): 73103.
Hayes, Danny. 2008. “Does the Message Matter? Candidate-Media Agenda Convergence and Its Effect on Voter Issue Salience.” Political Research Quarterly 61 (1): 134–46.
Inglehart, Ronald, and Norris, Pippa. 2003. Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Iyengar, Shanto. 1990. “Shortcuts to Political Knowledge: The Role of Selective Attention and Accessibility.” In Information and Democratic Processes, eds. Ferejohn, John A. and Kuklinski, James H.. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 160–85.
Iyengar, Shanto, Hahn, Kyu S., Bonfadelli, Heinz, and Marr, Mirko. 2009. “’Dark Areas of Ignorance’ Reconsidered.” Communication Research 36 (3): 341–58.
Jerit, Jennifer, and Barabas, Jason. 2012. “Partisan Perceptual Bias and the Information Environment.” Journal of Politics 74 (July): 672–84.
Jerit, Jennifer, Barabas, Jason, and Bolsen, Toby. 2006. “Citizens, Knowledge, and the Information Environment.” American Journal of Political Science 50 (April): 266–82.
Johnson, Paul. 2009. “What Knowledge is Of Most Worth?” In The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship, eds. Borgida, Eugene, Federico, Christopher M., and Sullivan, John L.. New York: Oxford University Press.
King, Gary, Honaker, James, Joseph, Anne and Scheve, Kenneth. 2001. “Analyzing Incomplete Political Science Data.”‘ American Political Science Review 95 (March): 4969.
King, Gary, Tomz, Michael, and Wittenberg, Jason. 2000. Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation. American Journal of Political Science 44: 341–55.
Koch, Jeffrey. 1997. “Candidate Gender and Women's Psychological Engagement in Politics.” American Politics Quarterly 25 (1): 118–33.
Lambert, Ronald D., Curtis, James E., Kay, Barry J., and Brown, Steven D.. 1988. “The Social Sources of Political Knowledge.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 21 (2): 359–74.
Lizotte, Mary-Kate, and Sidman, Andrew. 2009. “Explaining the Gender Gap in Political Knowledge.” Politics & Gender 5 (2): 127–52.
Lupia, Arthur. 2006. “How Elitism Undermines the Study of Voter Competence.” Critical Review 18 (1–3): 217–32.
Luskin, Robert C. 1990. “Explaining Political Sophistication.” Political Behavior 12 (December): 331–61.
Luskin, Robert C. 1987. “Measuring Political Sophistication.” American Journal of Political Science 31 (4): 856–99.
Luskin, Robert C., and Bullock, John G.. 2011. “‘Don't Know’ Means ‘Don't Know’: DK Responses and the Public's Level of Political Knowledge.” Journal of Politics 73 (April): 547–57
Miller, Melissa K., and Orr, Shannon K.. 2008. “Experimenting with a ‘Third Way’ in Political Knowledge Estimation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (4): 768–80.
Mondak, Jeffery J. 2001. “Developing Valid Knowledge Scales.” American Journal of Political Science 45 (1): 224–38.
Mondak, Jeffery J. 2000. “Reconsidering the Measurement of Political Knowledge.” Political Analysis 8 (1): 5782.
Mondak, Jeffery, and Anderson, Mary. 2004. “The Knowledge Gap: A Reexamination of Gender-Based Differences in Political Knowledge.” Journal of Politics 66 (2): 492512.
Mondak, Jeffery J., and Davis, Belinda Creel. 2001. “Asked and Answered: Knowledge Levels When We Will Not Take ‘Don't Know’ for an Answer.” Political Behavior 23 (3): 199222.
Mutz, Diana C. 2002. “Cross-cutting Social Networks: Testing Democratic Theory in Practice.” American Political Science Review 96 (1): 111–26.
Nicholson, Stephen P. 2003. “The Political Environment and Ballot Proposition Awareness.” American Journal of Political Science 41 (July): 403–10.
Nyhan, Brendan, and Reifler, Jason. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32 (3): 3030–330.
Parker-Stephen, Evan. 2013. “Tides of Disagreement: How Reality Facilitates (and Inhibits) Partisan Public Opinion.” Journal of Politics 75 (4): 1077–88.
Pietryka, Matthew T., and MacIntosh, Randall C.. 2013. “An Analysis of ANES Items and Their Use in the Construction of Political Knowledge Scales.” Political Analysis 21 (4): 407–29.
Price, Vincent, and Czilli, Edward J.. 1996. “Modeling Patterns of News Recognition and Recall.” Journal of Communication 46 (Spring): 5578.
Prior, Markus. 2014. “Visual Political Knowledge: A Different Road to Competence?Journal of Politics 76 (1): 4157.
Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Prior, Marcus, and Lupia, Arthur. 2008. “Money, Time, and Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Quick Recall and Political Learning Skills.” American Journal of Political Science 52 (1): 169–83.
Rainey, Carlisle. 2014. “Arguing for a Negligible Effect.” Forthcoming, American Journal of Political Science.
Sanbonmatsu, Kira. 2003. “Gender-Related Political Knowledge and the Descriptive Representation of Women.” Political Behavior 25 (4): 367–88.
Schudson, Michael. 1998. The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. New York: Free Press.
Shaker, Lee. 2012. “Local Political Knowledge and Assessments of Citizen Competence.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 525–37.
Stolle, Dietlind, and Gidengil, Elisabeth. 2010. “What Do Women Really Know? A Gendered Analysis of Varieties of Political Knowledge.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 93109.
Verba, Sidney, Burns, Nancy, and Schlozman, Kay Lehman. 1997. “Knowing and Caring about Politics: Gender and Political Engagement.”The Journal of Politics 59 (4): 1051–72.
Zaller, John R. 2003. “A New Standard of News Quality: Burglar Alarms for the Monitorial Citizen.” Political Communication 20 (June): 109–30.
Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed