The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate’s consideration of health care legislation.

In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill. The survey was conducted before Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won a special election to the Senate on Jan. 19; Brown’s election means Senate Democrats can no longer count on a 60-vote majority once he takes office.

About six-in-ten (59%) correctly identify China as the foreign country holding the most U.S. government debt. Nearly as many (57%) know that the United States imports two-thirds of the oil it consumes. As was the case in previous knowledge surveys, a majority (55%) knows the current unemployment rate is about 10%. However, far fewer (36%) correctly estimate the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average at about 10,000 points.

The news quiz, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Jan. 14-17 among 1,003 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, asked 12 multiple choice questions on subjects ranging from economics and foreign affairs to prominent people in the news. Americans answered an average of 5.3 questions correctly.

The survey finds that while the public struggled with most of the political questions on the survey, most Americans (56%) know that there currently is more than one woman serving on the Supreme Court. Notably, this is the only question on the quiz where as many women as men answer correctly; men scored significantly better on other questions.

In response to questions about terrorism and national security, half (50%) correctly identify Yemen as the country where intelligence officials believe the suspect in an attempted Christmas Day airline bombing received training and bomb materials. A slightly smaller percentage (43%) knows that during all of 2009 there were more American military fatalities in Afghanistan than in Iraq; 32% said more U.S. troops were killed in Iraq. This question proved difficult for many, even though interest in developments in Afghanistan – and media coverage – picked up in late 2009 as President Obama announced his war strategy [See “Top Stories of 2009: Economy, Obama and Health Care,” released Dec. 29, 2009].

Questions about people in the news round out the quiz update. About four-in-ten (39%) know that Nevada Democrat Harry Reid is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. About a third (32%) correctly pick Michael Steele as the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Interestingly, nearly half of Republicans (48%) are able to identify Reid as Senate majority leader compared with just a third (33%) of Democrats. More Republicans can identify Reid as majority leader than can identify Steel as chairman of the RNC (37%).

About four-in-ten (41%) correctly say that Stephen Colbert is a comedian and television talk show host. This is the only question on the quiz that more people younger than 30 than older people answer correctly (49% vs. 39%).

Asked how many GOP senators voted for the chamber’s health care bill on Dec. 24, only 32% know that the measure received no support from Republican members. About as many answer incorrectly, saying that five (13%), 10 (8%), or 20 (8%) GOP Senators voted for the bill. About four-in-ten (39%) do not know or decline to answer.

A smaller percentage (26%) knows that 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster in the Senate. About as many (25%) mistakenly say that a simple majority of 51 votes can break a filibuster.

As with most other questions on the news quiz, well-educated people, older Americans and men are more likely to correctly answer the questions about the Senate vote on health care and the filibuster.

Less than a third of Republicans or Democrats can correctly identify the number of votes needed to end a filibuster (30% among Republicans, 25% among Democrats). College graduates fared better than other demographic groups on this question, but fewer than half of college graduates (45%) know that it takes 60 Senate votes to overcome a filibuster.

Republicans, on average, answered one more question correctly than Democrats (5.9 vs. 4.9 correct). These differences are partly a reflection of the demographics of the two groups; Republicans tend to be older, well educated and male, which are characteristics associated with political and economic knowledge. Still, even when these factors are held constant, Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz.

Among the largest gaps comes over knowledge of who leads the U.S. Senate. About half (48%) of Republicans are able to identify Reid as the current majority leader, while only a third of Democrats can name their own party’s Senate leader. More Republicans can name Reid (48%) than Steele (37%), the RNC chairman.

The one question in the survey in which Democrats slightly outperform Republicans is about the number of women now serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Close to six-in-ten Democrats (58%) know that more than one woman serves on the high court, compared with 50% of Republicans. Though the Democratic Party is made up of more women than men, this finding does not appear driven mostly by gender. Republican men and women are about equally likely to answer this question correctly (about half each), while solid majorities of both Democratic men (60%) and women (57%) get this question right.

As in previous knowledge surveys, older people fare much better on most questions than do young people. The largest gaps come on questions about the Christmas Day terrorist plot and the name of the Senate leader.

When asked to name the country that intelligence officials believe trained and equipped the suspected Christmas Day bomber, close to six-in-ten (59%) Americans 50 and older correctly identify Yemen, compared with just 25% of those younger than 30. Similarly, there is a 34-point difference between those younger than 30 and older than 50 in knowledge of who leads the U.S. Senate (16% vs. 50%).

The most notable exception to this pattern is the ability of young people to identify Colbert. About half (49%) of those younger than 30 correctly identify the comedian and talk show host compared with 38% of those older than 50.

The Pew Research Center’s news consumption surveys have consistently measured greater attentiveness to news about politics and economics among men than among women. The results of the News IQ Quiz tend to reflect these news preferences.

In the
current poll, men on average answer more questions correctly than women (6.0 for men vs. 4.6 for women). The gender gap in news knowledge is greatest on the question of which country holds the most U.S. government debt (70% of men answer correctly vs. 49% of women) and the current level of the Dow (45% of men know this vs. 27% of women). But there is no gender divide on the item about the number of women on the Supreme Court. Roughly equal proportions of men (57%) and women (56%) answer this correctly.

The survey measures overall news knowledge using the 12 multiple choice questions in an additive scale. For each question answered correctly respondents receive one point on a scale ranging from zero (none correct) to 12 (all correct). In the current News IQ Quiz, just 2% of the public answered all questions correctly (12 out of 12), while 6% failed to answer a single question right.

Compared with the News Quiz from nearly a year ago, it proved harder for the public to answer at least half the questions correctly this time. Only 42% of Americans answered at least six questions right, compared with 71% who answered at least half the questions correctly in March 2009.

Consistent with past knowledge tests, demographic groups differed in how well they performed on the quiz. Men correctly answered an average of 6.0 out of 12 questions correctly, while women answered an average of 4.6 questions right. Those with college degrees correctly answered 7.3 questions correctly on average. Those with some college experience answered an average of 5.4 questions and those with no college experience answered 3.9 correctly on average.

As in the past, older Americans generally did better than young people. Respondents 50 and older could correctly answer an average of about two more questions than those under age 30 (5.9 vs. 3.8).

Republicans averaged 5.9 correct answers. Independents correctly answered 5.6 on average and Democrats answered 4.9 correct on average.