Do Americans Know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens? Analyzing the Results of the Newest Economist/YouGov Poll

For the last week, U.S. media outlets have paid closer attention to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. The main issue of controversy has been the publication of a Harvard-funded study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that challenged the Government of Puerto Rico’s official death toll, which currently stands at 64. It claimed that hurricane-related deaths could be as low as 793 and as high as 8,498.

It seems that this increasing media coverage convinced the people who conduct the weekly Economist/YouGov Poll to include several questions related to the death toll controversy and the federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.

This is not the first time that the Economist/YouGov Poll has asked Americans their opinions on issues related Puerto Rico. In May 2016, as Congress debated the PROMESA bill, its survey included several questions on the island’s financial crisis. In October 2017, the polling firm asked respondents’ to rate the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria.

In these different iterations, the Economist/YouGov Poll asked the following question:

“What is the national citizenship of a person born in Puerto Rico whose parents were both also born in Puerto Rico?”.

The next bar graph summarizes respondents’ answers to this questions.

chart (49)

The results of the most recent poll are not too encouraging. The number of people who were “not sure” about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status has increased in the last two years. Even though it seems that the increased media coverage of Hurricane Maria helped many Americans realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the newest survey shows a substantial decrease in the number of Americans who understand this reality.

How accurate are these figures? Although I think that the question is poorly worded, the fact that the Economist/YouGov Poll has used the same wording in the three survey instruments allow us to compare and contrast respondents’ knowledge of Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status as well as their views on the island’s constitutional status.

It is difficult to explain why Americans’ opinions have fluctuated so much since May 2016. If anything, we should expect that Americans’ opinions of island-born Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status to be more accurate, given all the media coverage Puerto Rico’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria has received in the last nine months.

How does partisanship affect people’s opinions? In other words, are Democrats’ views more informed that Republicans? What are independent voters’ opinions and how do they compare with Americans’ registered in one of the main political parties?

chart (53)chart (52)chart (51)

While not too surprising, the surveys show that independents know less about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status than registered Democrats or registered Republicans. In May 2016, 55% of independent voters were either “not sure” or believed that island-born Puerto Ricans were not U.S. citizens. This number slightly increases to 56% in October 2017 and goes up to 62% in June 2018.

Democrats by in large tend to be more informed than Republicans on this issue. But it is important to highlight that the numbers of Democrats who correctly answered the question in October 2017 declined by 11% in June 2018. We see a similar drop with Republicans who believe that island-born Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

A close reading of the survey’s findings also demonstrates that knowledge about Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status also got worse among African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites. The same holds true for respondents in all the income categories as well as among men and women.

The survey’s silver lining can be found in the results under the age category. The next bar graphs summarize the findings.

chart (56)chart (57)chart (55)chart (54)

Younger respondents’ answers have become more accurate over time. And their knowledge rivals Baby Boomers’ understanding of this issue.

The Economist/YouGov Poll also asked other questions connected to federal government’s response to Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts post-Hurricane Maria. I will analyzed those numbers in another post. But for now it is interesting to see how increasing media coverage of Puerto Rico does not necessarily improve Americans’ understanding of the island’s constitutional status or Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status.

Technical note: The Economist/YouGov Poll surveys YouGov’s “opt-in internet panel”. In the May 2016, 2000 respondents completed the questionnaire and the survey’s margin of error was 3%. In October 2017, 1500 respondents took the survey and its margin of error was 3.1%. The June 2018 survey also polled 1500 respondents and its margin of error was 3.2. 

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