What is public opinion?
Here does it come from?
How do we measure it?
What is the role of public opinion in politics?
V.O. Key defined public opinion as reflecting “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.”
Another definition: the collective or aggregate opinions of the adult population.
Emerges in part from the political socialization process in childhood and early adolesence:
Socialization helps form beliefs and values that shape our opinions later in life.
Opinions are also influenced by adult experiences:
Property ownership (stakeholding)
Instills tolerance and other political values.
Increases political efficacy: the belief that one's actions can affect government policies.
Before the 1930s, studies of public opinion relied on convenience samples or straw polls.
1930s: George Gallup developed the scientific approach to survey research still used today:
Use of random samples.
Efforts to reduce selection bias.
Another consideration is measurement error: expressed opinions may not reflect underlying attitudes.
In a random sample, each member of the population of interest has an equal chance of being surveyed.
This rule guarantees that the sampling error—the error in polls due to using a sample rather than looking at the whole population—is as small as possible.
Bigger samples have less sampling error:
500 respondents: ± 4.4%
1000 respondents: ± 3.1%
If some members of the population are more likely to be surveyed than others, selection bias results.
Sources of selection bias:
Sampling frame is not the population of interest.
Telephone polls omit people who don't have phones.
Some groups of people are less likely to respond to surveys than others.
Self-selection (opt-in), common in web polls
Another common problem: survey questions may not accurately gauge interviewees' true attitudes:
Many opinions cannot be measured objectively and are hard to quantify.
Questions may lead to biased responses due to their wording.
Attitudes may be too complex for a single question.
In 1993 the American Jewish Committee commissioned a survey on public beliefs about the Holocaust when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington.
22% of Americans said it was “possible… the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened.”
“Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”
Question was not clear or simple; it contains a double negative.
Alternative question used in a subsequent poll:
“Do you doubt that the Holocaust actually happened, or not?”
In this formulation of the question, 87% of respondents were certain it happened and only 9% said it did not (4% were uncertain).
The full report, by David W. Moore and Frank Newport, is available in The Public Perspective (March/April 1994).
Sometimes these differences can emerge based solely on the terms used in the question:
|Question||Too little||About right||Too much|
|Spending on “welfare”||25%||37%||38%|
|Spending on “caring for the poor”||70%||22%||8%|
|Source: 1984 General Social Survey.|
Some issues are too complex to be captured by a single survey question.
Attitudes towards abortion are a classic example:
Many Americans are not neatly “pro-choice” or “pro-life” in all circumstances; instead they tend to fall in the middle.
Questions about the extremes lead to biased responses that don't reflect issue's complexity.
While many of the sampling and measurement issues can be overcome, there are other obstacles to “governing by public opinion”:
Voters are uninformed.
Voters lack ideological constraint.
Voters' attitudes are unpredictable.
Voters will express opinions about things they know little about.
A small fraction of the public knows “basic” information about politics like the identity of the Chief Justice of the United States or the Speaker of the House.
Voters are rationally ignorant: they know little about politics because the benefits do not exceed the costs.
Higher education leads to more knowledge.
Personal or group interest leads to acquiring knowledge about relevant topics: issue publics.
Important events and media publicity may increase knowledge for a time.
Political elites (people who are deeply interested and involved in politics) tend to conceptualize the world using ideologies:
Ideologies help people shape the political universe and connect related ideas together.
Most people (the mass public) don't think about politics in these terms.
Attitudes of the mass public often reflect logical contradictions:
Support for cutting government spending in the abstract, but opposition to cutting spending on specific programs.
Support for expanding government programs and cutting taxes at the same time.
Support for “free speech” but opposition to the exercise of free speech by unpopular groups.
Even when the public cares deeply about an issue, government action may still be unlikely:
Senators and representatives are responsible to their local constituents, whose opinions may differ from the public at large.
Elected officials may be more concerned about their supporters and single-issue voters than all of their constituents.
Elected officials may believe that voters have other, more important priorities.
Despite the shortcomings of the public, government policy does seem to respond to aggregate trends in opinion.
While individual opinion often appears irrational, collective opinion seems to cancel out much of the noise: the “rational public.”
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