By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain why public opinion is important and the beliefs and ideologies that shape public opinion
Introduction: What Is Public Opinion?
Public opinion is a collection of popular views about something, perhaps a person, a local or national event, or a new idea. For example, each day, a number of polling companies call Americans at random to ask whether they approve or disapprove of the way the president is guiding the economy.
When situations arise internationally, polling companies survey whether citizens support U.S. intervention in places like Syria or Ukraine. These individual opinions are collected together to be analyzed and interpreted for politicians and the media. The analysis examines how the public feels or thinks, so politicians can use the information to make decisions about their future legislative votes, campaign messages, or propaganda.
But where do people’s opinions come from? Most citizens base their political opinions on their beliefs and their attitudes, both of which begin to form in childhood and develop through political socialization.
Beliefs are closely held ideas that support our values and expectations about life and politics. For example, the idea that we are all entitled to equality, liberty, freedom, and privacy is a belief most people in the United States share. We may acquire this belief by growing up in the United States or by having come from a country that did not aﬀord these valued principles to its citizens.
Our attitudes are also aﬀected by our personal beliefs and represent the preferences we form based on our life experiences and values. A person who has suﬀered racism or bigotry may have a skeptical attitude toward the actions of authority figures, for example.
While attitudes and beliefs are slow to change, ideology can be influenced by events. A student might leave college with a liberal ideology but become more conservative as she ages. A first-year teacher may view unions with suspicion based on second-hand information but change his mind after reading newsletters and attending union meetings. These shifts may change the way citizens vote and the answers they give in polls. For this reason, political scientists often study when and why such changes in ideology happen, and how they influence our opinions about government and politicians.
At the same time that our beliefs and attitudes are forming during childhood, we are also being socialized; that is, we are learning from many information sources about the society and community in which we live and how we are to behave in it. Political socialization is the process by which we are trained to understand and join a country’s political world, and, like most forms of socialization, it starts when we are very young. We may first become aware of politics by watching a parent or guardian vote, for instance, or by hearing presidents and candidates speak on television or the Internet, or seeing adults honor the American flag at an event. As socialization continues, we are introduced to basic political information in school. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance and learn about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, the two major political parties, the three branches of government, and the economic system.
By the time we complete school, we have usually acquired the information necessary to form political views and be contributing members of the political system. A young man may realize he prefers the Democratic Party because it supports his views on social programs and education, whereas a young woman may decide she wants to vote for the Republican Party because its platform echoes her beliefs about economic growth and family values.
Accounting for the process of socialization is central to our understanding of public opinion, because the beliefs we acquire early in life are unlikely to change dramatically as we grow older.
Our political ideology, made up of the attitudes and beliefs that help shape our opinions on political theory and policy, is rooted in who we are as individuals. Our ideology may change subtly as we grow older and are introduced to new circumstances or new information, but our underlying beliefs and attitudes are unlikely to change very much, unless we experience events that profoundly aﬀect us. For example, family members of 9/11 victims became more Republican and more political following the terrorist attacks.
Similarly, young adults who attended political protest rallies in the 1960s and 1970s were more likely to participate in politics in general than their peers who had not protested.
Today, polling agencies have noticed that citizens’ beliefs have become far more polarized, or widely opposed, over the last decade. According to some scholars, these shifts led partisanship to become more polarized than in previous decades, as more citizens began thinking of themselves as conservative or liberal rather than moderate.
Public Opinion and Elections
Elections are the events on which opinion polls have the greatest measured eﬀect. Public opinion polls do more than show how we feel on issues or project who might win an election. The media use public opinion polls to decide which candidates are ahead of the others and therefore of interest to voters and worthy of interview. From the moment President Obama was inaugurated for his second term, speculation began about who would run in the 2016 presidential election. Within a year, potential candidates were being ranked and compared by a number of newspapers.
The speculation included favorability polls on Hillary Clinton, which measured how positively voters felt about her as a candidate. The media deemed these polls important because they showed Clinton as the frontrunner for the Democrats in the next election.
Polling is also at the heart of horserace coverage, in which, just like an announcer at the racetrack, the media calls out every candidate’s move throughout the presidential campaign. Horserace coverage can be neutral, positive, or negative, depending upon what polls or facts are covered. During the 2012 presidential election, the Pew Research Center found that both Mitt Romney and President Obama received more negative than positive horserace coverage, with Romney’s growing more negative as he fell in the polls.
Horserace coverage is often criticized for its lack of depth; the stories skip over the candidates’ issue positions, voting histories, and other facts that would help voters make an informed decision. Yet, horserace coverage is popular because the public is always interested in who will win, and it often makes up a third or more of news stories about the election.
Exit polls, taken the day of the election, are the last election polls conducted by the media. Announced results of these surveys can deter voters from going to the polls if they believe the election has already been decided.
During presidential primary season, we see examples of the bandwagon eﬀect, in which the media pays more attention to candidates who poll well during the fall and the first few primaries. Bill Clinton was nicknamed the “Comeback Kid” in 1992, after he placed second in the New Hampshire primary despite accusations of adultery with Gennifer Flowers. The media’s attention on Clinton gave him the momentum to make it through the rest of the primary season, ultimately winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Public opinion polls also aﬀect how much money candidates receive in campaign donations. Donors assume public opinion polls are accurate enough to determine who the top two to three primary candidates will be, and they give money to those who do well. Candidates who poll at the bottom will have a hard time collecting donations, increasing the odds that they will continue to do poorly.
Presidents running for reelection also must perform well in public opinion polls, and being in oﬃce may not provide an automatic advantage. Americans often think about both the future and the past when they decide which candidate to support.
They have three years of past information about the sitting president, so they can better predict what will happen if the incumbent is reelected. That makes it diﬃcult for the president to mislead the electorate. Voters also want a future that is prosperous. Not only should the economy look good, but citizens want to know they will do well in that economy.
For this reason, daily public approval polls sometimes act as both a referendum of the president and a predictor of success.
Public Opinion and Government
The relationship between public opinion polls and government action is murkier than that between polls and elections. Like the news media and campaign staﬀers, members of the three branches of government are aware of public opinion. But do politicians use public opinion polls to guide their decisions and actions?
The short answer is “sometimes.” The public is not perfectly informed about politics, so politicians realize public opinion may not always be the right choice. Yet many political studies, from the American Voter In the 1920s to the American Voter Revisited in the 2000s, have found that voters behave rationally despite having limited information. Individual citizens do not take the time to become fully informed about all aspects of politics, yet their collective behavior and the opinions they hold as a group make sense. They appear to be informed just enough, using preferences like their political ideology and party membership, to make decisions and hold politicians accountable during an election year.
Overall, the collective public opinion of a country changes over time, even if party membership or ideology does not change dramatically. As James Stimson’s prominent study found, the public’s mood, or collective opinion, can become more or less liberal from decade to decade. While the initial study on public mood revealed that the economy has a profound eﬀect on American opinion.
Further studies have gone beyond to determine whether public opinion, and its relative liberalness, in turn aﬀect politicians and institutions. This idea does not argue that opinion never aﬀects policy directly, rather that collective opinion also aﬀects the politician’s decisions on policy.
Individually, of course, politicians cannot predict what will happen in the future or who will oppose them in the next few elections. They can look to see where the public is in agreement as a body. If public mood changes, the politicians may change positions to match the public mood. The more savvy politicians look carefully to recognize when shifts occur. When the public is more or less liberal, the politicians may make slight adjustments to their behavior to match. Politicians who frequently seek to win oﬃce, like House members, will pay attention to the long- and short-term changes in opinion. By doing this, they will be less likely to lose on Election Day. Presidents and justices, on the other hand, present a more complex picture.
Link to Learning
Policy Agendas Project
The website of the Policy Agendas Project details a National Science Foundation-funded policy project to provide data on public opinion, presidential public approval, and a variety of governmental measures of activity. All data are coded by policy topic, so you can look for trends in a policy topic of interest to you to see whether government attention tracks with public opinion.
References and Further Reading
V. O. Key, Jr. 1966. The Responsible Electorate. Harvard University: Belknap Press.
John Zaller. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eitan Hersh. 2013. "Long-Term Eﬀect of September 11 on the Political Behavior of Victims’ Families and Neighbors." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (52): 20959–63.
M. Kent Jennings. 2002. "Generation Units and the Student Protest Movement in the United States: An Intra- and Intergenerational Analysis." Political Psychology 23 (2): 303–324.
Pew Research Center (2014). Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew Research Center.
Joseph Bafumi & Robert Shapiro (2009). A New Partisan Voter. The Journal of Politics 71 (1): 1–24.
Hitlin, P. (2013). The 2016 Presidential Media Primary Is Oﬀ to a Fast Start. Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
Kiley, J. (2015). A Clinton Candidacy: Voters' Early Impressions. Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
Texas Politics Project (2018). Ted Cruz Favorability (2018) - by Party ID. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
Pew Research Center. (2012). Winning the Media Campaign. Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center (2012). Fewer Horserace Stories-and Fewer Positive Obama Stories-Than in 2008. Pew Research Center.
Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., and Stimson, J. A. (2000). Bankers or Peasants Revisited: Economic Expectations and Presidential Approval. Electoral Studies 19: 295–312. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
MacKuen, M. B., Erikson, R. S., & Stimson, J. A. (1989). Macropartisanship. American Political Science Review 83(4). 1125–1142.
Stimson, J. A., Mackuen, M. B. & Erikson, R. S. (1995). Dynamic Representation. American Political Science Review 89 (3): 543–565
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