Who's Your Governor? 1 in 3 Americans Don't Know.

A new survey reveals how little the public knows about their state government. Media coverage is partly to blame.
by | December 21, 2018 AT 4:00 AM
American flag hanging on chalkboard in classroom.
(Shutterstock)

SPEED READ:

  • A Johns Hopkins University survey reveals that one-third of Americans can't name their governor and 80 percent can't name their state legislator.
  • The majority surveyed have more faith and trust in their state government than the federal government.
  • This knowledge void is partially to blame on the media's focus on national politics and the decline of statehouse reporters.
 

Do you know who your governor is? Can you name your state representative or senator? Or say whether your state has a one- or two-chamber legislature?

Turns out, many Americans don't know the answer to those questions.

According to a survey released this month by Johns Hopkins University, 1 out of 3 people can't name their governor, 4 out of 5 can't say who their state legislator is and roughly half don't know whether they have a uni- or bicameral legislature.

Despite that, the vast majority of the 1,500 respondents say their state government officials are doing a better job than the federal government, and that they trust them to handle problems.

So where does this blind faith come from? “We think that people have a lot of state pride and that translates into favorable opinions of state government and leaders,” says political scientist Jennifer Bachner, one of the survey's researchers. "But if people don’t know who their elected officials are and how they work, they can’t hold them accountable.”

Two reasons cited for this knowledge void are the nationalization of politics and the fact that the media’s coverage of it has shifted resources away from the state and local levels. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the number of full-time statehouse reporters has declined by more than a third since 2003. While some nontraditional outlets, such as nonprofit and ideological publications, have picked up some of the slack, the media’s watchdog role in state government has weakened.

Celina Stewart, director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, says the survey results are “disappointing,” particularly given that “so many decisions made at the state level directly impact the everyday lives of Americans.”

Indeed, all this inattention can have negative consequences for governments and voters. It could lead to corruption going unnoticed -- and that can ultimately cost taxpayers significant amounts of money.

A recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Notre Dame looked at the relationship between public finance and newspaper closures and found that municipal borrowing costs increased by as much as a tenth of a percent after a newspaper shuttered. The reason for this surcharge, researchers said, was likely because a local newspaper closure creates a “local information vacuum” that makes it more difficult for potential lenders to evaluate both the quality of the investment and the government officials in charge.

As a result, lenders charge the government a higher interest rate on its debt.