Barely half of Americans know the political party of their representative

Quick: To what political party does your member of Congress belong?

About three-quarters of you came up with an answer. Of that number, a third of you were wrong. At least if we can extrapolate from analysis released by Pew Research on Thursday. They found that 53 percent of Americans could identify their representative's political party which, let's be honest, is not so good.

The numbers vary slightly based on various demographic data, but not a whole lot. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to get it right (unsurprisingly). Men were more likely to get it right than women, but got it wrong just as much. Republicans got it right the most, but that appears to be in part because moderate Democrats were remarkably bad at the question.

OK, now let's have a little real talk. This is like asking people to identify if a coin will land heads up or heads down. There are precisely zero members of the House who are not either a Democrat or a Republican, so Pew might as well have asked, How will this coin flip turn out. (Yes, we know about Angus King and Bernie Sanders; but both caucus with Democrats and are, for all intents and purposes, Democrats.)

Except let's also assume that in every newspaper every day, on websites every hour, there were also articles about if the coin is heads or tails. That two years prior, there had been a day on which everyone went out and picked how the coin would be oriented, and the media wrote a bunch of stories the next day and the local news ran stories with headlines like "Local citizens decide to place coin heads up". This isn't just a 50/50 guess, it's a 50/50 guess with years of hints at everyone's fingertips.

And in a lot of cases, decades. I live in New York City, so if you blindfolded me and took me anywhere in the city and forced me at gunpoint to identify the party of the representative of wherever I was, I would say, "That person is a Democrat." (In the country at large, you'd be better off guessing "Republican," of course, but let's just assume that people who don't know their own representative also don't know who controls the chamber.)

According to the Cook Political Report, there are 13 House races this year that are "toss-ups" -- too close between the parties to pick. That means that there are 422 races this year that aren't toss-ups. And, in fact, there are only 30 more that Cook considers "lean" districts, ones that could switch parties somewhat easily. Here's how much of the country's population lives in districts that are toss-ups.

Three percent of the country. And why are the rest of those districts pretty safe for incumbents? In part, because they are incumbents, meaning they've been around for years. And often, they're like New York City -- obviously and consistently allied with one party or the other, probably for the entirety of this century. But somehow, one-fifth of Americans never really picked up on that little detail. It's actually pretty remarkable, and raises all sorts of questions about how people react when they go into the voting booth and select a candidate. Maybe all of the voters are the ones who know what party the candidates belong to. Maybe not.

We can say one positive thing about the results. By a two-to-one margin, Americans picked the right political party out of the two possibilities. That is substantially better than winning a coin toss. Some probably guessed right, but some must have actually known the answer, which is a real testament to our democracy.

Want to share this article with your friends? Good idea. But you might want to double-check your own representative first.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · July 24