In the National Election Studies (NES), interviewers have been asked to rate respondent’s level of political information: “Respondent’s general level of information about politics and public affairs seemed — Very high, Fairly high, Average, Fairly low, Very low.” John Zaller, among others, has argued that these ratings measure political knowledge reasonably well. However, there is some evidence that challenges the claim. For instance, there is considerable unexplained inter- and intra-interviewer heterogeneity in ratings – people with similar levels of knowledge (as measured via closed-ended items) are rated very differently (Levendusky and Jackman 2003 (pdf)). It also appears that mean interviewer ratings have been rising over the years, compared to the relatively flat trend observed in more traditional measures (see Delli Carpini, and Keeter 1996 and Gilens, Vavreck, and Cohen 2004, etc).
Part of the increase is explained by higher ratings of respondents with less than a college degree; ratings of respondents with BS or more have remained somewhat more flat. As a result, the difference in ratings of people with a Bachelor’s Degree or more and those with less than a college degree is decreasing over time. Correlation between interviewer ratings and other criteria like political interest are also trending downward (though the decline is less sharp). This conflicts with evidence for increasing ‘knowledge gap’ (Prior 2005).
The other notable trend is the sharp negative correlation (over .85) between intercept and slope of within-year regressions of interviewer ratings and political interest, education, etc. This sharp negative correlation hints at possible ceiling effects. And indeed there is some evidence for that.
Interviewer Measure – The measure is sometimes from the pre-election wave only, other times in the post-election wave only, and still other times in both waves. Where both pre and post measures were available, they were averaged. The correlation between pre-election and post-election rating was .69. The average post-election ratings are lower than pre-election ratings.