Public Opinion

Public Opinion and Elections

Elections are the events on which opinion polls have the greatest measured eect. 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.

Ted Cruz favorability poll
Figure 14.1 Respondents were asked, "Please tell us whether you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, neither favorable nor unfavorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of Ted Cruz." Measurement of Party ID for this figure is based on two questions. First, respondents were asked whether they consider themselves to be Democrats, Republicans, independents, other, or not sure. Those who responded that they are independents or "other" were then asked if they lean toward either the Democrats or Republicans. If they indicated that they lean toward one party or the other, they are considered Democrats or Republicans for the purposes of this figure. Only "pure" independents or members of a third party who indicate that they have no preference for Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans are considered independents. Respondents who answered that they are "not sure" for either of the two aforementioned questions are not incorporated into this figure. Image credit: Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin - Ted Cruz Favorability (2018) by Party ID

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.

Candidate Trump delivers a speech
Figure 14.2 In 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump became the center of the media’s horserace coverage. As the field winnowed from over twenty candidates down to three, the media incessantly compared everyone else in the field to Trump. In the photo, Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Fountain Hills,
Arizona. Image credit: Gage Skidmore, License:​​​​ CC BY-SA 2.0

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 eect, 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 aect 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 oce 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 dicult 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.