Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at NC State, is often quoted in the media about his research on misinformation in politics, the use of polls to measure public opinion about politics and public policy, and the influence of celebrities in political races. He also oversees the Pack Poll, a public opinion survey conducted by NC State students to find out what other students think about issues.
NC State alumni magazine interviewed Cobb for its autumn issue. Here are some additional excerpts from that interview:
How do voters know what they can believe and not believe these days? That’s a great question. I wish I had the answer. By and large, the more political you are, the more you trust certain sides. So if you’re a Democrat, you tend not to trust what any Republican says and vice versa. The less political you are, the more willing you are to accept what other people say because you don’t know a lot. But ironically you don’t pay as much attention. So the people that are kind of open to different messages are the least likely to actually pay attention.
Do people have misconceptions about public opinion polling? I mean, it’s just a very superficial understanding that we have, which is fine most of the time. You know, why do people need to know this stuff? Because if we start to believe the results, but they are very tenuous, we create false narratives about what society is like and what people want. So I think it’s important to be a good, critical consumer.
Is there still a place for moderates in American politics? There is. But you’re going to see that effect more at a statewide race, something that can’t be gerrymandered. But there aren’t that many true independents out there. If you ask people, “Do you think of yourself as a Democrat or Republican or an independent,” more people say independent than either party right now. But if you do a follow-up question, “Do you lean towards one party or another? Do you think of yourself as more like a Democrat or Republican, or do you really think of yourself as an independent?” Once you do that, independents are only about 12 percent of the population.
Given all the money in politics and the effects of gerrymandering, do voters have less of a voice now? In some ways, voters have more power than ever. Members of Congress are running scared. Why? Because voters have more say now about the entire process, in primaries, both at the presidential and the district level. It used to be parties nominated their own candidates. So voters, in some ways, have more of a say. On the other hand, there is this concern that if big money sided disproportionately with one team, that’s going to affect the kind of information people can get exposed to, creates kind of an unbalanced environment.
Does it help a candidate to have the endorsement of a George Clooney or a Clint Eastwood? No, not necessarily. It’s too crude to think that if you just get endorsed by a likeable celebrity… You’re not a commodity. You’re not a product like a shoe or a watch. It doesn’t transfer that way.
But are there ways that celebrity endorsements help a candidate? They use celebrities to raise money, and I think that’s an effective strategy. They strategically deploy celebrities to increase crowds at rallies and events. Then, at those events, they are able to sign up people to vote. And then they get their information so they can contact them during election time.