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11. Public Opinion: Voice of the People, Using the Videos
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources

 

Classroom Applications Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion Watch the Video and Discuss Pre-viewing Activity and Discusssion


 

Using The Video Unit 11

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • What is public opinion?

  • What role should public opinion play in a democracy?

  • What role does it play in democracy?

  • What are the consequences of relying heavily on polls to understand public opinion?


Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) [Top]

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The video includes three segments:

1. A Change of Heart About Federalizing Airport Security

Shortly after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, the nation's air traffic system came to a halt. But even after the airports reopened, millions of Americans remained afraid to fly as they believed the existing methods of screening for weapons and other security risks were inadequate. Congress immediately introduced legislation to improve airport security, and soon hearings in both the House and Senate were underway. Despite President Bush's strong backing, the legislation stalled. The problem was that although everyone agreed on the need for more airport screeners and better equipment, there were deep disagreements over whether the airport screeners should be federal employees. Democrats wanted security personnel working directly for the government, where recruiting, pay, benefits, training, and supervision could be standardized and controlled. Republicans, on the other hand, felt that the federal government should set broad standards, but let private contractors actually employ and supervise the screeners. Clearly, the Republicans gave in to the Democrats' demands when they realized that their position conflicted with public sentiment on the issue. On November 16, President Bush signed the bill.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the Republicans eventually give in on the airport security bill?

  • How did political leaders know what the public wanted?

  • Is this example atypical of the power of public opinion?

2. The Voice of the People. Really?

Every four years, the presidential election brings with it a barrage of public opinion polls designed to gauge who's up and who's down, and which issues are in and which are out. The better polls use carefully crafted questions that are arranged in a precise order and a sample that accurately reflects the make-up of the larger population. But many Americans believe that a poll with more respondents will always be better than one with fewer respondents and few are sensitive to the precise wording necessary to conducting a good poll.

Discussion Questions

  • What was wrong with Mr. Perot's poll?

  • What would he have needed to do to create a better poll?

  • What kinds of things should we, as consumers of polls, know about polling in order to evaluate their accuracy?

3. The Case of Vermont and Its Civil Unions Legislation

In the spring of 2000, the Vermont legislature passed a controversial bill that gave gay and lesbian couples the same legal protections as those afforded to married couples in the state. While Vermont was the first state in the U.S. to pass such legislation, the action was not without opposition. Several public opinion polls run prior to the vote showed that a majority of those surveyed did not favor passage of the legislation. In addition to polls showing that more Vermonters opposed than supported the bill, huge rallies and a letter-writing campaign organized by opponents showed that the intensity of feelings on the issue ran high. Vermont's lawmakers clearly knew they were treading on dangerous political waters regarding this issue.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Vermont's citizens express their views on civil unions?

  • Polls can show what position people may take on issues, but it does not do a good job of showing the intensity of those feelings. Given that, should they be ignored in favor of participation in rallies or letter-writing campaigns?

  • Given public opinion on this issue, did Senator MacDonald do the right thing?
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Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes) [Top]

Try the Critical Thinking activity for Unit 11. This is a good activity to use with your students, too.

1. What Every Citizen Should Know About Polling But Is Afraid To Ask (20 minutes)

Scientific methods of public opinion polling were first developed in the 1930s. Before that, researchers and politicians attempted to gauge public opinion through things like chance encounters with citizens, straw polls (simply polling as many people as you can), and exit polls (questioning people as they leave the polling place). These methods were unscientific because no attempt was made to gather a representative sample of the whole polling population.
Today, professional pollsters have high confidence in their polls because they understand the science of polling and the art of interpreting poll results. However, not all polls are created equal. As the example of Ross Perot's poll in TV Guide illustrates, some polls are haphazardly created and administered and can actually distort public opinion. The aim of this learning resource is to provide basic information about polling that can help all citizens become more knowledgeable consumers of polls. Can you think of other criteria that should be added to the list?

There are several things to look for in evaluating a given poll and its results:

  • Is the poll based on a random sample of the entire population? A truly random sample requires that everyone in the entire target population (usually all adults) have an equal chance of being interviewed. Typically, a "good" random sample size is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 persons who are selected in a "stratified" or multi-stage process where progressively smaller geographical units are randomly selected as sample areas. Most polls will describe their sample methodology in the fine print of their results. Those where the pollsters seek out respondents are likely to be scientific, while those that allow respondents to select themselves are usually not. Examples of unscientific polls include call-in polls, Internet polls, and mall surveys.

  • Are the questions understandable? The questions must be framed in basic language that people can understand. This means that pollsters avoid terms and jargon that require further explanation. If some explanation is needed, the pollsters should present it in a basic and balanced way. In addition, questions about obscure details of policy or politics must be avoided since respondents tend to give answers to questions on issues they know little or nothing about.

  • Are the questions asked fairly? Professional pollsters are always on the lookout to avoid question wording that can bias respondents' answers. For example, good pollsters always eliminate leading adjectives, such as unpatriotic anti-war demonstrators, ungodly pro-choice activists, or the staunch Republican candidate.

  • Are the response categories offered sufficiently broad to capture people's range of opinions? As the example of the Perot poll shows, if you offer respondents a simple either/or choice, you will get different (and usually much less accurate) results than if you offer several choice options.

    For example, when the Perot poll asked respondents whether or not they favored one deficit reduction proposal (For every dollar in tax increases there should be two dollars of spending cuts, with the savings earmarked to pay down the debt), 97 percent of respondents said yes. Yet when respondents were offered several debt-reduction options, support for the original Perot option dropped significantly.

  • Is the sampling error reported clearly? All polls have potential sampling errors, and the better ones will report their potential error rate up front. A 3 to 5 percent sampling error rate is considered reasonable, while polls with higher margins of error should be interpreted with caution. What does sampling error mean? Consider this: A poll with a 3 percent error rate means that it is 97 percent accurate. In other words, in a poll that registers high presidential public approval at 50 percent, we can be 97 percent sure that the actual rate of public approval is between 47 percent (50 minus 3 percent) and 53 percent (50 plus 3 percent). Obviously, if results of a poll are within 3 percentage points of each other, say one policy proposal being supported by 49 percent of those polled and opposed by 51 percent, then the results are considered "within the margin of error" and no reliable difference can be asserted.


2. What Are the Sources of Your Political Values? (10 minutes)


While the processes of political socialization are complex, we know that an individual's political values and attitudes are shaped by a variety of factors including their parents, teachers, and peers, and their response to formative events such as war or political scandals. Think about your formative periods of political socialization, including the potential influence of parents, relatives, peers, teachers, and actual events on your political beliefs. To get things started, you might recall the context of your first "political awareness," such as when your parents were discussing (or arguing about!) who they intended to vote for in a presidential election, when they first tuned into a military conflict on television, or their feelings about a major political event (e.g., presidential speech or action). What had the greatest influence on your current beliefs and opinions?

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Homework [Top]

Read the following Readings from Unit 12 to prepare for next week's session.

  • Introduction-Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "Parties in the United States"

  • Washington, "Letter to Thomas Jefferson"

  • Roosevelt, "Bull Moose Speech"

  • Piroth, "Selecting Presidential Nominees: The Evolution of the Current System and Prospects for Reform"

Read next week's Topic Overview.

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Classroom Applications [Top]

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: What Every Citizen Should Know About Polling But Is Afraid To Ask and What Are the Sources of Your Political Values? They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.

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