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Patrick Kraft

Research Findings

Changing how surveys are conducted shows there is no gap in political sophistication between women and men

October 5, 2023

Survey researchers and pundits alike frequently lament the fact that citizens know too little about politics. Furthermore, public opinion polling consistently suggests that women appear to be less knowledgeable about politics than men. But how can we measure political sophistication in the first place? And more importantly, how does our measurement approach impact our conclusions about citizen competence about politics? The conventional approach to measure political sophistication in surveys focuses on multiple-choice questions assessing people’s ability to recall information about political institutions and officeholders. (For instance, the American National Election Study routinely asks questions such as, “Do you happen to know which party currently has the most members in the U.S. Senate?”) These types of factual knowledge questions—which have been used in scores of surveys for academic research and polling—have important limitations. For instance, determining a comprehensive set of knowledge questions is far from trivial since it involves strong assumptions about what information is necessary for people to be politically competent. Furthermore, knowledge questions vary in difficulty across demographic segments and can therefore introduce systematic measurement error when comparing groups of respondents.

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