The Contraception Contretemps Continues, But Are Americans Paying Attention?

March 14, 2012, 4:23 PM GMT+0

The debate over the Obama administration’s policy on contraception coverage. Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress. Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on her. Obama’s phone call to Fluke. The Republican candidates’ views of all of the above. These things have driven a lot of political commentary.

Amidst the frenzy, it’s always worth stopping to see how many Americans are tuning in. It is easy to overestimate how much Americans care about every little political tempest that roils Washington DC, the campaign trail, cable news, or the editorial pages. A March 3-6 YouGov poll shows that large pluralities, even majorities, of Americans aren’t closely following the contraception contretemps.

This poll first asked about Rick Santorum’s position on birth control: “Which one of the following statements is closest to Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s position on birth control?” Respondents were given these possibilities:

  1. 1. I'm fine with it within a marriage but not outside of the husband-wife relationship because it encourages premarital sex.
  2. 2. It's not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be
  3. 3. Contraception. It’s working just fine. Just leave it alone.
  4. 4. Have not heard yet about Santorum's position on birth control

The second answer is a direct quote from Santorum, but only 34% of respondents identified this as his position. Ten percent chose the first option. About 13% chose the third, which was actually a statement by Mitt Romney. The largest group, 43%, simply said that they had not heard.

The poll also asked respondents this item about the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy:

“Last week, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh described a female Georgetown University law student who testified to Congress about women’s access to contraception at the Catholic university as ‘a slut’ and a prostitute. In the controversy that followed, which of these people called the student to express his disappointment in the personal attack?”

The figure below shows that just about half identified the caller, correctly, as Obama. The remaining half either misidentified the caller or, most commonly, had not heard.

A similar finding emerges when we move outside the contraception debate to another miniature dust-up: Santorum’s comments about Obama’s views of college education. The YouGov survey asked: “Which of the following people said, ‘President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.’” Respondent could choose between Sarah Palin, Stephen Colbert, and Santorum.

A large fraction, 42%, identified Santorum as the speaker. Four percent chose Palin and 7 percent chose Colbert. But the largest group, 47%, once again had not heard.

To point out that many Americans do not know the answers to such questions is in no way to impugn their intelligence or citizenship. People are busy and have many interests. They do not always have the time, inclination, or need to follow politics very closely. These survey results actually do more to question the assumptions of commentators, who are often anxious to inflate every argument during the campaign to a “game changer”—even if many Americans aren’t really watching the game.