Public Opinion

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 staers, 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 eect on American opinion.

Further studies have gone beyond to determine whether public opinion, and its relative liberalness, in turn aect politicians and institutions. This idea does not argue that opinion never aects policy directly, rather that collective opinion also aects 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 oce, 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.