Overview Unit 11
Public Opinion: Voice of the People
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Define public opinion and discuss its major characteristics.
- Discuss the role that public opinion has in the American political
- Discuss the role of public opinion polls in politics and government.
- Describe the factors important to carrying out an accurate
poll, and the strength and weaknesses of data from polls.
- Describe means, other than polling, for gauging public opinion.
Unit 11 examines the important role of public opinion in American
democracy. The difficult concept of public opinion is illustrated
by first exploring the political culture of the United States. The
unit then offers an illustration of the powerful influence that public
opinion can and often does have on decision makers. The unit also
elucidates the process of taking a poll, demonstrating the pitfalls
that can befall those who do polling. Finally, the unit explores other
avenues available to the public to express their opinion. The prevalence
of polling often obscures these other powerful ways of expressing
Most Americans share a common, or core, political culture,
which is a set of values, beliefs, and traditions regarding politics
and government. Our shared values include a general faith in representative
democracy, in basic freedoms like freedom of speech, in basic rights
such as voting, and in the principles of capitalism and private property.
While our shared values that make up our political culture remain
intact, many Americans have lost confidence in their government and
public officials. Beginning in the 1960s, an increasing proportion
of Americans expressed a general distrust of government officials
and a cynicism about politics and government. By 2000, almost
two-thirds of Americans felt distant and disconnected from government.
There are various possible reasons for this growing discontent with
government and political processes including people's frustration
with the influence of moneyed interests in American politics and latent
distrust of political leaders that stems from events such as the Vietnam
War and Watergate. Despite these feelings of discontent and distrust,
most Americans still believe that no other country provides the opportunities
found in the United States.
Our core political values shape our attitudes. Political socialization
is the process by which we learn our political values. There are several
socializing agents that influence our political values including
family, school, peers, mass media, and social groups. Children, for
example, often adopt the party identification of their parents, especially
if both parents strongly identify with the same party. In addition,
primary and secondary schools familiarize young people with authority
figures outside the family and teach respect for democratic processes.
Personal and group attributes such as gender, race, and religion may
also influence a person's political values.
The process of political socialization is unique to each individual.
However, some common attributes may be identified among people with
similar social backgrounds. Socioeconomic status (SES)
is a composite measure of an individual's income, education, and occupation.
While there are exceptions to the rule, individuals with higher incomes
and education levels and more-professional occupations tend to be
more politically conservative than those with lower incomes and education
and with less-professional jobs. Individuals in higher SES brackets
also tend to vote more than those with lower SES measures.
Public officials, political candidates, and media outlets have increasingly
come to depend on public opinion polls to gauge public opinion.
The selection of interviewees by method of random probability sampling,
in which every person in the population theoretically has an equal
chance of being selected, is essential to a good poll. But even with
random probability sampling the best polls contain a margin of
error, which means the results can vary by a defined probability
depending on the size of the sample. For example, national samples
of 1,500 respondents will usually be accurate within three percentage
points, plus or minus.
Poorly designed polls provide inaccurate or misleading findings. In
addition to inadequate sample size or lack of randomness in selecting
interviewees, leading or biased questions can undermine the
accuracy of poll results. For example, pollsters would likely get
different aggregate responses to a question about "intrusive
government programs" versus "necessary government programs."
Polling technology has come a long way since the 1930s. But there
are limits to how much polls can tell us. It is one thing to understand
how a majority of people responds to a survey question, it is another
thing to measure a person's intensity of feelings. Some people
may state an opinion or preference on an issue even though they don't
care deeply about it either way. Others may feel strongly about the
issue, but the multiple choices offered don't accurately reflect how
deeply they care. Another factor to consider is issue salience,
or how important the issue is to the public. Some issues that may
be very important to most people may be addressed in the same poll
with issues that most people care or know little about. Also, most
polls only provide a snapshot picture of what the public feels
on an issue at that time. Public opinion, however, is not always stable;
as events change, so do attitudes.
The fact that public officials and political candidates use polls
does not mean that their decision-making is guided solely by poll
results. Instead, public officials use polls as one form of feedback
on public opinion. They also try to gauge the intensity and saliency
of the public's policy preferences by talking to constituents, reading
their mail, listening to interest groups, interpreting election results,
and relying on their own political instincts and values. If they perceive
that the public does not feel strongly about an issue or that opinions
are unstable, they may try to shape public opinion through their leadership
on an issue.