The limits of the public’s political knowledge: Brexit referendum knowledge

A good rule of thumb is that the more involved you are in politics, the more you over-estimate how much everyone else knows about politics. (Unless you’re a wise reader of my posts on this topic, of course.)

That’s not due to people being stupid; it’s because more people would rather fill their time up with other information. What it does mean though is that only a few stories really stick in the public’s mind – but when they do stick, because they’re up against not many other stories, they can really have an impact.

Which is why the more refined version of that rule of thumb is that the public knows less but remembers it for longer than (most) people in politics assume. It’s why the the thing that breaks through can still heavily influence people’s votes years, even decades after.

Another aspect of this is that there’s a difference between knowing roughly what happened and being able to recall the detail. You may know that the Conservatives are in power and have a majority even if you have no clue how many MPs there are and so even less of a clue as to how many Conservative MPs there are.

There’s a nice example of this ‘being good on the big picture while shaky on the details’ in new YouGov polling, asking people what the result was of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

YouGov polling on what people thought the result of the Brexit referendum was

The pessimistic take, as headlined by YouGov itself, is that “only one in three Britons can recall the EU referendum result”. That’s true, if recalling 52% Leave – 48% Remain is your yardstick. However, the data also shows that only 3% thought that Leave didn’t win the referendum (2% thought it lost and 1% thought it tied).

That’s pretty good, and a reflection too of how you nearly always get some very weird results down in the low single figures – helped by drunkenness, trolling or incompetent clicking.

In other words, the public’s pretty good at the broad picture, even if not on the ball with the specific details. Know the winner but not the score. Much like most of my football knowledge.

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One response to “The limits of the public’s political knowledge: Brexit referendum knowledge”

  1. The ‘rule of thumb’ that I drew up decades ago is:
    Most people don’t think about politics most of the time.
    So never assume they may know about what exercises you.
    On the doorstep always seek their views and concerns first, before peddling Lib Dem answers.

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