Utahns don’t know much about Utah government

Utahns don’t know much about national politics, but they know even less about Utah politics.

Although Americans often take pride in living in the world’s oldest democracy, American voters tend to do a very poor job answering basic questions about our political system. (Think you’re an exception? Try this quiz.)

Of course, most political quizzes ask about national politics. I thought it would be fun to quiz Utahns on their knowledge of state-level politics and see how they do. After all, state politics matter far more in our daily lives than federal politics. (If you don’t believe me on that point, I’ll back it up in a moment.)

How much do Utahns know about Utah government?

I included a few political knowledge questions in the March 2013 wave of the Utah Voter Poll, a recurring poll of Utah voters run through BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. First, respondents saw a question that looked something like this:

You will have 60 seconds to answer this question. Which office is currently held by each of the following:

Respondents were shown three names: Joe Biden, John Boehner, and Harry Reid. Under each name, they were shown a list of six federal offices to choose from (it was the same list each time): US Vice President, US Senate Majority Leader, US Senate Minority Leader, Speaker of the US House, US Supreme Court Justice, Office Not Listed.

On the next screen, they saw exactly the same question, but the names shown were Greg Bell, Becky Lockhart, and Wayne Niederhauser. The six offices were changed to corresponding state offices: Utah Lieutenant Governor, Utah Senate President, Utah Senate Minority Leader, Speaker of the Utah House, Utah Supreme Court Justice, Office Not Listed.

Elsewhere in the survey, I also asked respondents how long US Senators serve (6 years) and how long Utah Senators serve (4 years). This one was open-ended, not multiple choice.

That brings us to a total of 4 factual questions about each level of government. Here’s how it came out:

US facts Utah facts
Second highest officer
(Biden vs Bell)
87% correct 57% correct
Lower chamber leader
(Boehner vs Lockhart)
65% correct 38% correct
Upper chamber leader
(Reid vs Niederhauser)
67% correct 31% correct
Length of Senate term
(6 vs 4 years)
56% correct 49% correct

Overall, the average respondent answered 69% of the US questions correctly and 44% of the Utah questions correctly. The 25 percentage point gap is impressive and disappointing. Utahns don’t know much about national politics, but they know even less about Utah politics.

We can look at this another way. Of all our respondents, 42% answered all four US questions correctly, while only 15% answered all four Utah questions correctly. Those 42% are our national political junkies. Our state political junkies appear to be missing in action.

Which voters performed the best?

I used some statistical analysis to assess which demographic groups performed better or worse with these knowledge questions overall. The method I used allows me to estimate the effect of one specific variable when other factors (age, education, income, gender, partisanship, marital status, religion) are held equal.1 Unsurprisingly, those with a college degree or a higher income performed better on both the US and Utah questions. What I really wanted to know was who did better on the Utah questions specifically, though.

Turns out that Democrats did. Democrats scored 0.44 points higher (out of 4 questions) than Republicans on Utah questions; on US questions, the effect was smaller (0.34 points) but still substantial. I find it interesting that the gap was largest on the Utah questions. Perhaps Republicans feel safe ignoring Utah politics, under the assumption that the Republican government will do Republican things. Meanwhile, Democratic voters might feel more threatened by the state’s Republican government and therefore pay more attention to it.

There was also a Mormon effect. Mormons outperform non-Mormons on Utah politics knowledge (by 0.25 points); the effect goes away on the US questions.

For those who wish they knew more about Utah politics, there is a simple remedy: Watch local news broadcasts, or read local newspapers. Those who report doing so score much higher (0.48 points) on the Utah questions. They also perform marginally better (0.22 points) on the US questions.

Why should Utahns care about Utah government?

Most Utahns don’t care much about Utah politics. I gave respondents a list of US and Utah political institutions and asked respondents to rate on a scale from 1 (“not at all”) to 5 (“a great deal”) how much each institution affects their “personal life or financial situation.” Here’s the average score for each institution:

US institutions Utah institutions
Legislative 4.19
(US Cong.)
4.01
(Utah Leg.)
Executive 3.94
(US Pres.)
3.71
(Utah Gov.)
Judicial 3.81
(US Sup. Ct.)
3.38
(Utah Sup. Ct.)
Average rating 3.98 3.70

Respondents consistently rated Utah’s political institutions lower than the corresponding national institutions. When the three scores from each level are averaged together, respondents gave an average rating of 3.98 to the national government but only 3.70 to the state government. Here are two facts that call these judgments into question:

  • Each year, America’s 50 state legislatures pass roughly 100 times as many bills as Congress passes. Utah’s Legislature alone passes twice as many bills as Congress.
  • Each year, America’s 50 state court systems hear roughly 100 times as many cases as the federal court system. Utah’s state courts alone heard roughly as many cases (306,014 cases) in 2011 as the entire federal court system (344,642 cases).2

There is a reason that state governments pass WAY more laws and hear WAY more cases than the federal government: Most of the day-to-day governing happens in the states. Primary education, higher education, public safety, professional licensing, business regulation, land use and zoning, sales tax, property tax, public transit, incarceration, freeway construction, infrastructure development, water management, and most other policy matters are mostly handled at the state level. Unless you serve in the armed forces, work for the federal government, or depend on Social Security for day-to-day income, few federal actions have as much effect on your life as state actions. State governments matter WAY more in telling you what you can do and how you can do it.

Punchline

  • Far more governing happens in the states than in Washington. Utah’s legislative and judicial branches alone are as busy as the nation’s legislative and judicial branches.
  • Regardless, people believe that the federal government makes more decisions that affect their lives than their state government.
  • As a result, people pay more attention to national politics than to state politics.

Make of it what you will, but I found it interesting.

Methodological note

For question wording, sample size, margin of error, and other details, you can download the 2013 March Utah Voter Poll topline report here. [update: some errors were in the topline; it will be reposted soon.]

This post benefited from research assistance rendered by Justin Chang, a CSED student fellow. He dutifully accepted the grunt work assignment of calculating all the statistics shown here after I handed him the survey results. Any mistakes are my liability, of course, not his.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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