Political Behavior, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2001 ( 2002)
ASKED AND ANSWERED: Knowledge
Levels When We Will Not Take
“Don’t Know” for an Answer
JefferyJ. Mondak and Belinda Creel Davis
A pivotal claim in research on citizen competence is that the typical citizen knows very
little about politics. Public opinion surveys provide a considerable body of evidence
in support of this position. However, survey protocols with respect to factual questions
about politics violate established norms in psychometric research on educational test-
ing in that “don’t know” answers are encouraged rather than discouraged. Because
encouraging “don’t know” responses potentially confounds efforts to identify substan-
tive understanding, this practice may lead to the systematic understatement of politi-
cal knowledge. We explore this possibility with data drawn from three split-ballot tests:
one conducted as part of a survey in the Tallahassee, Florida, metropolitan area, one
conducted as part of the 1998 NES Pilot, and one conducted as part of the 2000 NES.
Results reveal that the mean level of political knowledge increases by approximately
15% when knowledge questions are asked in accordance with accepted practices in
Key words: political knowledge; citizen competence; “don’t know” effects.
Political scientists debate so many issues with such great intensity that
points of agreement seem oddly conspicuous. One question on which near-
universal consensus exists concerns how much Americans know about politics.
The answer, of course, is not much at all. Although vigorous debate continues
regarding other aspects of citizen competence, it is widely accepted that rela-
tively few Americans can be considered well informed about politics and gov-
ernment. In stark contrast with this sophisticated minority, most citizens, ana-
lysts agree, know little—or very little—about these subjects. Philip Converse
(1990) captured this sense of scholarly consensus well, writing that “the two
Jeffery J. Mondak, Department of Political Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
32306-2230 (firstname.lastname@example.org); Belinda Creel Davis, Department of Political Sci-
ence, Michigan State University.
0190-9320/01/0900-0199/0 2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation