Chapter Study Outline

Despite most Americans having only a minor interest in politics and public policy, the fundamental assumption of democracy is that citizens have an idea of what they want government to do. American opinion, however, has strong political consequences. For example, as fewer Americans supported the war in Iraq, a similar decline in support was observed among politicians. Public opinions shape voting decisions, and many Americans voted for Democratic congressional candidates because they opposed the war in Iraq. And as Americans’ worries turned from the war to financial troubles, political fortunes were made or failed depending on the candidates’ stances on economic policies.

Some scholars argue that most Americans make up responses to survey questions, have no firm opinions about government policy, and are easily swayed by candidates, advocacy groups, or the media. In contrast, this chapter shows that Americans do hold measurable opinions on a wide range of topics, and these opinions shape their political behavior. Furthermore, political process matters: the way individual opinions are formed and the tools used to measure public opinion shape what people demand from government and how politicians respond to those demands.

What Is Public Opinion?

Public opinion is citizens’ view on politics and government actions. It matters for three reasons: (1) citizens’ political actions are driven by their opinions, (2) public opinion helps explain the behavior of candidates, political parties, and other political actors; politicians look to public opinion to determine what citizens want them to do, (3) public opinion can also shed light on the reasons for specific policy outcomes.

The Political Science of Public Opinion

Early studies of public opinion during the 1950s found little evidence that public opinion existed. The surveys revealed high levels of inconsistency, including conflicts in a single respondent’s political ideology both within a single setting and over time and the inability to defend opinions. Only a small fraction of the electorate, 5 percent, was classified as having the highest level of conceptualization, which refers to the amount of complexity in an individual’s beliefs about government and policy and the extent to which those beliefs are consistent with each other and remain consistent over time.

The New Theory of Public Opinion

Three arguments forced changes in the old view of public opinion:

  • Some survey questions are ambiguous and open to interpretation.
  • Analysis of surveys taken in the 1960s and afterward found that many opinions remained stable over time. Even if the early findings about public opinion were true, at best they described only the American public of the 1950s, not contemporary public opinion.
  • In order to accurately capture public opinion, scholars need to expand their picture of what it might look like. While early surveys looked for evidence that opinions were internally consistent, stable, and based on a rationale that allowed them to be explained, modern scholars suggest that none of these conditions are necessary.

Describing Public Opinion

Modern theories of public opinion distinguish between two types of public opinion:

  • Broad expressions are typically formed early in life and remain stable over time. For example, liberal–conservative ideology is a way of describing political beliefs in terms of a position on the spectrum running from liberal to moderate to conservative. Americans are spread across the ideological range, with most people identifying as liberal or conservative but not strongly so.
  • A latent opinion is formed on the spot, only when needed (as distinct from a deeply held opinion, which is stable over time). For most Americans, all opinions are latent.
    • On-line processing is a way of forming a political opinion in which a person develops a preference for a political candidate, party, or policy but does not remember the original reasons behind the preference. Thus, when asked to defend an opinion formed in this way, a person has to do so on the spot.
    • When opinions are formed on the spot, they are based on considerations, the pieces of relevant information—such as ideology, party identification, religious beliefs, personal circumstances, and so on—that come to mind when the opinion is requested.

Opinions may change as people call up different considerations to form them. Such variation reflects how the average person thinks and develops opinions.

Where Do Opinions Come From?

  • Socialization: Families and Communities

    Theories of political socialization show that many people’s political opinions start with what they learned from their parents and surrounding culture. For example, there is a high correlation between one’s party identification and the liberal-conservative ideology of their parents.

  • Events

    People can revise their opinions in response to what happens to them and in the world around them. Political realignments are a good example. A realignment is a nationwide shift in which large numbers of people move from identifying with one political party to identifying with another.

  • Group Identity

    Social categories or groups, such as gender, race, or education level, may influence an individual’s opinion. These characteristics might shape opinion in three ways:

    • People learn about politics from the people around them.
    • People may rely on others who “look like” them as a source of opinions.
    • Candidates and political consultants often formulate their campaign strategies in terms of groups.

  • Politicians and Other Political Actors

    Politicians and other political actors, such as political parties and party leaders, interest groups, and leaders of large organizations, because of their presumed expertise, influence opinions and changes in opinion. They work to shape public opinion in order to win support for their proposals.

Measuring Public Opinion

Most information about public opinion generally comes from a mass survey, an in-person or phone interview with hundreds or even thousands of voters. Mass surveys aim to measure the attitudes of a particular population or group of people. Because it is often impossible to interview every member of a large group, surveys typically involve a sample of between a few hundred and several thousand individuals.

Large-scale surveys use various types of questions to measure public opinion. One type of survey question measures preferences using an issue scale, a survey response format in which respondents select their answers from a range of positions between two extremes.

Surveys are composed of random samples, small subsets of the population being studied, in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being studied. Because samples of populations are surveyed rather than every member, the survey results may not be completely accurate. A calculation that describes what percentage of the people surveyed may not accurately represent the population being studied is known as the sampling error. Increasing the number of respondents lowers the sampling error.

  • Problems Measuring Public Opinion

    The accuracy of survey results relies strongly upon building a random sample. One method of random sampling is random digit dialing, in which the interviewers call respondents by dialing random telephone numbers in order to include those with unlisted numbers. Other techniques include selecting households at random from census data or face-to-face interviewing. All of these tactics are prone to error since, for example, not everyone has a telephone and many people are not available at their homes for face-to-face interviews if they work during the day.

    In order to keep costs down, some organizations have used a robo-poll, a survey in which a computer program, rather than a live questioner, interviews respondents by telephone. Others use online surveys to collect data. Although these methods are cheaper, serious doubts exist about the randomness of the samples these techniques produce.

    Another problem with surveys is that people are sometimes reluctant to reveal their opinions and instead choose to give socially acceptable answers or answers the interviewer wants to hear. In order to address this issue, pollsters often attempt to verify answers whenever possible and frame questions in a variety of indirect ways so that respondents are comfortable providing honest answers.

  • The Accuracy of Public Opinion

    Inaccurate survey results are often attributable to poor design or misinterpretation of questions. In some cases, inaccurate results are due to the fact that people do not take surveys seriously. Furthermore, respondents may be unwilling to admit that they do not know about something, and therefore make up an answer. Studies show that a respondent’s ability to express an opinion, as well as the accuracy of her opinions, rises if the questions being asked have something to do with everyday life.

  • How Useful Are Surveys?

    Mass opinion surveys are a powerful tool for measuring public opinion, but their results must be interpreted carefully. Surveys may ask questions regarding topics that respondents have not considered, samples may be biased, people may be reluctant to admit their opinions, and a question may be ambiguous. Thus, survey samples are only able to measure public opinion within a margin of error.

    Survey results are most likely to be accurate when they are based on a simple, easily understood question about a topic familiar to most Americans. You may be even more confident in the results if multiple surveys ask about the same topic in slightly different ways but still produce similar findings. If a survey asks about a complex, unfamiliar topic, then the results may not provide much insight into public opinion.

  • Characteristics of American Public Opinion

    In order to understand what America’s national government does and why, we must consider the characteristics of American public opinion in detail.

    • Ideological Polarization

      Ideological polarization is the effect on public opinion when many citizens move away from moderate positions and toward either end of the political spectrum, identifying themselves as either liberals or conservatives. There is no evidence of ideological polarization in public opinion, with a strong majority of Americans identifying themselves as moderates.

      Strong dissent on most political issues just appears to be true, because there is no reason to gather data on issues about which a vast majority of Americans hold the same opinion. Thus, the issues that gain strong public recognition are those about which people disagree, and they comprise only a small portion of all of the issues that exist.

    • Evaluations of Government and Officeholders

      It is also important to consider how people view their government: how well or poorly they think their government is doing, whether they trust government, and their evaluations of individual policies. Citizens’ evaluations of specific policies ultimately influence their willingness to vote for incumbent candidates.

      Trends in public opinion show levels of trust in government declining steadily since the 1960s. Low levels of trust make it harder for elected officials to enact new policies, especially those that require large expenditures. Although Americans do not like their government in general, they tend to be far happier with their own representatives in Washington.

    • Policy Preferences

      One useful summary measure of Americans’ policy preferences is the policy mood, which captures the level of public support for expanding the government’s role in society and whether the public wants government action on a specific issue. Changes in the policy mood in America have led to changes in defense spending, environmental policy, and race-related policies, and have influenced elections. Turning to specific issues, surveys conducted in the past few years show that most Americans are focused on the same set of issues: Iraq, terrorism, economic conditions, health care, immigration, global warming, and social issues (gay rights and abortion).

Does Public Opinion Matter?

One of the most important pieces of evidence that public opinion remains highly relevant in American politics is the amount of time and effort politicians, journalists, and political scientists spend trying to find out what Americans think.

Many of the arguments about the irrelevance of public opinion hinge on misreading poll results. For most people, opinions are not fixed. Because opinions change, it can be difficult to establish a clear connection between political outcomes and public opinion.

Despite the aforementioned difficulties, it is clear that public opinion exerts influence in widespread areas of government. It is difficult to find a major policy that did not have majority support in the electorate at the time it was made. Concerning the war in Iraq, as public support waned, members of Congress began to express reservations. The strong decline in public support for the war may have directly influenced the pro-Democratic shift in the 2006 and 2008 elections, in which Democrats gained control of the House and Senate, as well as the presidency.