Chapter Study Outline


Public opinion—citizens’ attitudes about political issues, leaders, institutions and events—serves as a political basis of support for contemporary politicians. Presidents, members of Congress, and even the Supreme Court must take account of public opinion in their efforts to govern and to make and implement policy. As the standard by which we judge the strength of American democracy, public opinion—its origins, its development, and its influence—is a key concern of modern political science. Operating at both the individual level and the collective level, public preferences are quite complex. Understanding the origins of public opinion, the state of contemporary public knowledge about politics, and the ways that political elites shape and measure public opinion are the key aims of this chapter.

1. What Is Public Opinion?

What is public opinion? How is it expressed? What are the most common topics on which people hold political opinions? To what extent is the character of American public opinion best described as consensus-oriented or as evidence of polarization?

  • Public opinion is the aggregation of many citizens’ views and interests regarding political issues, leaders, institutions, and events.
  • Preferences reflect what people want and are characterized by their intensity; beliefs reflect what people know and how they understand the world. Preferences and beliefs are expressed indirectly, in response to choices that are offered.
  • There are areas of commonality, or consensus, within American public opinion, including consensus on the legitimacy of the government, equality of opportunity, liberty, and democracy.
  • Still, there are many areas in which the public disagrees on political matters and people express their divergent opinions through private communications to officeholders, public writings and statements, and the vote.
  • Public opinion exists on a variety of political topics, including the following examples:
    • Evaluations of those in government and other institutions
    • Assessments of public policies
    • Assessments of current circumstances
    • Political orientations including partisanship and ideology
  • Many contemporary observers argue that contemporary American politics is characterized by polarization that reflects not only America’s long-term consensus on some matters, but also the persistence of interest-based conflicts predicted by James Madison’s theory of America’s factionalism.

2. Origins of Public Opinion

From where do Americans get their opinions about politics? What role does self-interest play in determining one’s political views? What are the most common sources of political socialization and how do they shed light on the differences in opinion that occupy American politics? What is the role of political ideology in organizing the political opinions Americans hold?

  • Individuals’ preferences about politics and policy are rooted partly in self-interest, including economic interests as well as interests arising from laws relating to geographical location, social status, and other personal attributes.
  • Individuals’ attitudes about politics also tend to be shaped by underlying values that are deeply seated and reflect established community norms.
  • Individuals’ identities shape their preferences as well, since they tap fundamental psychological attachments that go beyond interests and values.
  • Preferences are formed socially, as the product of various agents and processes known as political socialization. There are numerous agents of socialization.
    • The family is an important agent of socialization; children often (though by no means always) absorb political preferences from their parents.
    • Education, often a great equalizer and source of common values, also produces political differences, as disparities in educational attainment are strongly associated, for example, with differences in political participation.
    • Involuntary social groups (e.g., gender and racial groups) as well as voluntary social groups (e.g. political parties, labor unions, religious organizations, educational and occupational groups) yield important differences in political attitudes. Patterns of differing opinions based on race, ethnicity, religious denomination, and gender emerge repeatedly in surveys.
    • Changing political conditions associated with generational differences and when individuals are first recruited into political involvement can alter political attitudes and behavior.
  • Sometimes individuals’ beliefs, attitudes, and opinions cohere to form a political ideology (that is, a general philosophy about the role of government).
    • Liberals tend to support political and social reform; extensive governmental intervention in the economy; federal social services; greater efforts on behalf of the poor, minorities, and women; environmental concerns; and consumer rights.
    • Conservatives tend to support the social and economic status quo; many support smaller government, oppose regulation of business, oppose abortion, support school prayer, and advocate the maintenance of American military power.

3. Public Opinion and Political Knowledge

What is the state of political attentiveness and political knowledge among American citizens? What are the consequences of the current state of political knowledge in America?

  • Because gaining political information is costly, Americans devote insufficient time, energy, or attention to politics to fully understand or evaluate issues; this “rational” ignorance of politics yields a citizenry that has little knowledge and awareness of politics.
  • When Americans do seek information on politics, many look to acquire “cheap” political information by taking cues from trusted others (e.g., ministers, commentators, journalists, friends, etc.) or interpret issues in light of prior general beliefs and ideology.
  • The consequences of this collective inattentiveness to politics include individuals’ inability to defend their political interests and the fact that widespread inattentiveness opens up democratic processes to greater manipulation by those who seek to shape public opinion. Yet democratic politics is possible due to “the magic of aggregation.”

4. Shaping Opinion: Political Leaders, Private Groups, and the Media

What are the primary forces that seek to manipulate, influence, and otherwise shape public opinion? How do these forces go about shaping opinion? What is the nature of their influence?

  • All governments attempt to manipulate their citizens’ beliefs, though in America, governmental messages compete with many other political actors. Although they differ in terms of precisely how they approach changing public opinion, all recent presidents have made use of election campaign-type polling to gauge and shape public opinion.
  • Political, business, and public interest groups are opinion leaders who look to shape public opinion on individual issues and promote ideological causes.
  • Communications media are among the most powerful forces operating in the marketplace of ideas. The mass media can be thought of as mediators between political elites, on the one hand, and the people, on the other. Still, these are mediators with effect: mass media set the public agenda; “prime” the criteria by which citizens evaluate politicians and political events; and “frame” events and issues in ways that affect public interpretations of politics.

5. Measuring Public Opinion

What are the effects of measuring public opinion through polls? What are the techniques pollsters employ? How might those techniques sometimes lead to errors in measurement or to outright changes in public opinion?

  • Whereas politicians used to measure public opinion by gauging applause, counting crowds, or through individual contact with citizens, contemporary politicians make extensive use of public opinion polls to decide whether to run for office, what policies to support, how to vote, and what appeals to make in campaigns.
  • Surveys are used to construct a picture of public opinion; if done correctly, they can be quite accurate.
    • First, pollsters must choose a representative sample of the population they seek to describe; seeking to avoid selection bias, pollsters employ a variety of sampling techniques, including probability sampling and random-digit dialing.
    • The reliability of polls is a function of sample size; good polls report their sampling error.
    • Survey design, question wording, and even the ordering of questions in a survey can result in measurement error.
  • The process of polling itself can have its own effect on public opinion.
    • Push polling, for example, is a technique in which the questions are worded precisely to shape the respondent’s opinion.
    • A poll’s focus on a particular issue or set of issues can produce the illusion of salience (that is, that an issue is important to the public when in fact it is not).
    • Poll results sometimes also produce a bandwagon effect, whereby support for a candidate or issue increases precisely because the candidate or issue has been reported to be popular.

6. How Does Public Opinion Influence Government Policy?

What is the appropriate role for public opinion to play in a polity that values both democracy and republicanism? In what ways do politicians govern for us? How can we make policy for ourselves?

  • The framers feared trusting the public when it comes to governing, and designed some institutions that insulate government from popular pressure.
  • Whereas some scholars argue that American citizens lack fundamental political knowledge and have been unpredictable in the opinions they reported to pollsters, others argue that, at the aggregate level, public opinion is coherent and stable.
  • In democratic nations, leaders should pay heed to public opinion, and most evidence suggests that they do. Even so, policies sometimes do not match up with popular opinion, either because the minority cared much more intensely, or because opinion changes more quickly than do policies.
  • Democratic devices such as ballot initiatives might resolve the inconsistencies between public opinion and public policy, though these mechanisms, too, are subject to elite manipulation.