“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
—James Madison (1)
What is Public Opinion?
Public opinion refers to the aggregation of individual American’s political views. In Federalist #10 James Madison referred to “popular governments.” Today, we are more likely to call them democracies or republics. What Madison meant—and what we mean today—are polities that base the source of their legitimacy and authority on the people rather than some other source like God, and that take into account peoples’ aggregate views when making policy. Indeed, if democracy is to mean anything it must refer to a government that periodically turns to the people to either make decisions directly or to select representatives to make decisions. It must also refer to a government whose policies accord with what the public wants it to do.
Measuring Public Opinion
You probably know what your family and friends think about particular political issues. How? You ask them. Similarly, we know quite a bit about public opinion by regularly asking individual Americans what they think in public opinion polls. Political scientists often rely on scientifically rigorous survey research methods in their research. You should be familiar with several issues regarding measuring public opinion. In our discussion, we’ll use the terms public opinion poll, public opinion survey, and survey research interchangeably to mean scientifically rigorous solicitations and aggregations of individual political views.
It is very important for you to be able to tell the differences between legitimate versus illegitimate public opinion polls. A legitimate survey must (must!) follow two simple rules regarding the samples they take from the population about which they want to make a statement.
- It must be based on a random sample drawn from the population about which you wish to make a statement. Survey researchers go through several practices to ensure that the people they contact are truly random. All people in the population need to have an equal chance of being in the sample. Above all, pollsters want to avoid selection bias, which is when some members of the population who have particular characteristics have an increased or decreased chance of being sampled. The most famous case of selection bias occurred in 1936 when a survey conducted by the Literary Digest predicted that Republican Alf Landon would beat Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt when in fact Roosevelt trounced Landon. Why was the poll wrong? It turns out that it drew its sample from telephone directories and automobile registrations, and in those days, wealthier Americans were much more likely to be on those lists. The poll had inadvertently weeded out potential Roosevelt supporters from the sample. Selection bias is a constant threat to survey research.
- The sample must be large enough to make accurate statements. A survey of 100 people will rarely suffice. However, a sample of 1,000 people is large enough to make statements about a very large population if you’ve satisfied rule number one. Consider something as simple as flipping a coin. Flip a coin 1,000 times and record the results. There is a 95 percent chance that the number of heads will be between 46.9 percent and 53.1 percent. The 3.1 percent variation around the exact fifty-fifty distribution of heads and tails is known as the margin of error. (2) The same principle works for survey research, where the margin of error refers to the variability amount that we can expect a poll to have from the true result if we actually surveyed the entire population. It comes with a confidence interval. Thus, “A margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level means that if we fielded the same survey 100 times, we would expect the result to be within 3 percentage points of the true population value 95 of those times.” (3) Always look for polls that publish the margin of error.
The accuracy of polling can sometimes be undermined by social desirability bias, which is “the concept that people won’t tell pollsters their true intentions for fear of being stigmatized or being politically incorrect.” Many political scientists and journalists blame social desirability bias for polls in 2016 that incorrectly showed Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in key battleground states. (4) People will tend to underreport behavior and opinions that they think the pollster will find unacceptable and overreport behavior and opinions that are socially desired. Some survey respondents will tell pollsters that they voted when they didn’t, that they support racial or gender equality when they don’t, and that they don’t use illegal drugs when they do.
When you see polls reported in the news media, pay attention to question wording, or the way that the survey items are phrased. Question wording can have a dramatic effect on the overall results of a survey. Beware especially of leading questions, which are questions that are intentionally or unintentionally phrased to elicit a particular response. Let’s look at a subtle case of unintentionally leading survey respondents. Consider two ways to ask a question:
Do you support President Bush’s decision to send additional troops to Iraq?
Do you favor or oppose sending additional troops to Iraq?
When the first version of the question references an authority figure like the president and only uses the word support, it could unintentionally lead people to say that they support the policy. The second version is more neutral. (5) There are far more egregious examples of leading questions. In 1937, Gallup asked, “Would you vote for a woman for president if she were qualified in every other way?” The implication of the question is that the mere fact of being a woman might be a disqualifying characteristic. (6)
This is a good place to note the role of push polling in American politics. A push poll is not a real attempt to get the opinions of people. Instead, a push poll is a form of negative advertising in the guise of a survey. An organization that is either hired by a political campaign or funded by soft money contacts people and tells them that they are doing a survey, but instead they use the opportunity to tell the people potentially negative things about a candidate. For example, when Mitt Romney ran for president, a company called potential voters in Iowa and New Hampshire asked questions like “Did you know Mitt Romney received military deferments from the Vietnam War when he served a church mission in France? Did you know Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is better than the Bible? Did you know that some people believe the Mormon church is a cult?” It was nomination season, and Romney’s Republican opponents denied that they were behind the calls. (7)
Survey research has been complicated by changing technology. In the old days, survey research companies called people at home. On their land line. Obviously, that has become much more difficult as most people no longer have hard wired phones in their homes. Cellphone surveying is more difficult because of caller screening and because many people who have cellphones are not adults.
Does Public Opinion Influence Policy?
Going back to the chapter on Political Science as a Social Science, we might say that in a democracy, we hypothesize a causal relationship between public opinion on a particular issue and the public policy that Congress and the president produce. How often does this take place? As we’ve seen thus far in this textbook, the American political system appears to be fairly non-responsive to ordinary people’s wishes. It doesn’t appear to be responsive to real world issues at all, even if elites would benefit from them as well. The American political system simply has too many points at which positive change can be defeated. Consider that America does not have a health care system that covers everyone; that America is not addressing the climate crisis—arguably the greatest crisis that has threatened mankind since the dawn of civilization; that America cannot fix its infrastructure; that America makes access to a quality college education contingent on family income, unless one wants to go into debt; that America has terrible rates of infant mortality, child poverty, hunger, and homelessness compared to its peers; that America can’t ensure that people will be paid a living wage or be treated with dignity while on the job; that America doesn’t guarantee paid family leave at the birth of a child; that America cannot even marginally address its epidemic of gun deaths; that America cannot stop itself from over spending on its military apparatus while underspending on its public health system; that America cannot ensure the integrity of its elections. What interpretation of “promote the general welfare” does this fit? Or, as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig put it, “How much to we suffer because we have a government that cannot govern?” (8)
Recall what political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded after thoroughly studying the connection between public opinion and public policy. They found “democracy by coincidence, in which ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.” (9) We should not be surprised at this conclusion, given the constitutional and process barriers to democracy that we’ve highlighted in this text as well as the gross economic inequalities in American society that translate into vast differences of political power between different classes.
We might ask another–less depressing–question: under what conditions is public opinion more likely to influence public policy? Under the current political system, which is not particularly suited to translating popular will into policy, four conditions appear to be the most important for allowing ordinary Americans’ opinions to influence public policy. Political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro noted three of these conditions. “Policy,” they wrote, “tends to move in the same direction as public opinion most often when the opinion change is large and when it is stable—that is, not reversed by fluctuations.” Large and stable shifts in public opinion can result in public policy change. “Similarly,” wrote Page and Shapiro, “policy congruence [with public opinion] is higher on salient than on non-salient issues.” (10) Issue salience refers to its prominence in the public sphere—are people talking about it, are they writing about it on news sites, is the issue important to many people? A third condition is the intensity with which people hold their opinions. If a significant enough plurality of people holds very intense opinions about an issue—e.g., gun rights, abortion, or civil rights—that translates into letters to Congress, votes on election day, demonstrations, and other forms of political behavior that can move elected officials to act.
The fourth condition that appears to determine whether public opinion can influence policy is whether elites are divided about the issue. We’ve already seen that if elites are unified on an issue, they appear to have a veto on political change. But things are different when elites are divided on an issue. Political scientist David Hubert, author of this textbook, showed how issue salience combines with elite division to create the ideal conditions for popular opinion to impact foreign policy. He found that when elites are divided on a salient political issue, at least one side of that division has an interest in enlisting public opinion as an argument for why their side of the policy debate should win. (11) This finding accords with political scientist E. E. Schattschneider’s assertion that “The role of the people in the political system is determined largely by the conflict system, for it is conflict that involves the people in politics and the nature of conflict determines the nature of the public involvement.” (12) If the main combatants—politicians, elites, and corporations—differ on a public policy, they draw in public opinion as a resource in their struggle.
The role of public opinion in affecting policy is limited and conditional. That is unlikely to change unless one of two things happens: 1) large numbers of people unify on a particular policy proposal and have some elite supporters and politicians on board, or 2) large numbers of people organize around significant changes to the political system that would make it more attuned to the wishes of ordinary Americans.
Often, elites go beyond merely enlisting public opinion in their political battles. There is considerable evidence for a phenomenon known as opinion leadership, which refers to the ability of political leaders to change the opinions of large numbers of people. The truth is that on many issues, individuals do not have strongly formed opinions. When a pollster asks them a question, they’ll give an answer, but often it is an issue about which they haven’t devoted much thought. If a political leader that they respect and/or with whom they share party affiliation comes out forcefully in favor of a different approach to that policy, many people will shift their opinion. For instance, after candidate and president Donald Trump and other Republican luminaries such as the leaders of the National Rifle Association took on a much more friendly approach to Russia and its leaders, the opinions of Republicans shifted in the same direction. Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of Republicans who viewed Russia as an ally or as friendly toward the United States doubled, but the views of Democrats towards Russia actually soured a bit. (13)
Political scientists and psychologists have long been interested in how people develop their individual approach to politics and political issues. There is no definitive answer, nor is there ever likely to be. Indeed, a mix of influences unique to each individual is likely to be the real source of our ideologies, attitudes, opinions, prejudices, and dispositions. You should be familiar with the prime suspects when it comes to our political socialization, by which we mean “the process by which people acquire their political attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors.” (14) There are many candidates, but we’ll only focus on four.
There is a growing body of research demonstrating that our political orientation may be in part a hard-wired component of our personality. Just as two siblings born of the same parents and raised in the same household can have vastly different personalities, we may be born with dispositions that affect the political ideologies we develop by the time we are adults. Psychologists and political scientists have found that conservatives and progressives appear to have an innate difference in threat perception, with conservatives more attuned to potential threats. Similarly, conservatives may be more fearful of those threats and want government to respond to them with military or police forces and/or laws. Conservatives have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and a lower tolerance for disorder than do progressives. (15) Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued convincingly that conservatives and progressives come from different moral standpoints. For instance, take the issue of fairness. Haidt argues that progressives see fairness as one of access to basic resources, whereas conservatives see fairness as getting what one deserves based on effort expended. In other words, both conservatives and progressives value fairness, but they may have innately different moral understandings of the concept. (16)
Occupation is another obvious candidate to be an influence on our political views. In Federalist #10 James Madison wrote that,
“the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.” (17)
One’s occupation is intimately tied to one’s vested interests and is therefore likely to have a strong interest on one’s political opinions. For example, teachers have different opinions than do members of the general public on issues like teacher pay, vouchers, the impact of teachers’ unions, and how often students should be subject to standardized tests. (18) Factory workers are likely to have a different opinion of globalization and offshoring jobs than the people who own the company. Blue-collar workers are likely to have a different opinion of unskilled immigrants than are white-collar workers who don’t have to compete with such immigrants for jobs.
We should recognize the roles of family and friends in shaping our political opinions. Children are raised by parents who have more or less well-developed political outlooks and in families with particular moral or ethical values. Parental viewpoints can transfer to children. In one early study, psychologist Eugene Thomas found an average 75 percent congruence rate between college-age students and their parents with respect to political attitudes. Moreover, two aspects of the family dynamic contributed the most to fostering parent-child attitude congruence: the extent to which the parents were dedicated to political causes and the extent to which the parents explicitly tutored children “into an awareness of the political realm.” (19) As children grow, they engage with other young people who influence and reinforce their attitudes and behaviors. Sociologist Denise Kandel noted that “adolescents who share certain prior attributes in common tend to associate with each other and tend to influence each other as the result of continued association.” (20) What Dr. Kandel described is the importance of homophily, which is “the tendency for individuals to associate with similar others,” and it is “one of the most persistent findings in social network analysis.” (21) We have a tendency to associate with people who are like us in some respect(s), and we then reinforce each other’s attitudes and behaviors. Homophily becomes more prominent as children get older and are able to transcend the imperatives of neighborhood geography, extend their potential networks, and go to college.
What about education? Broadly speaking, formal education can play a role in fostering tolerance for people who are racially, ethnically, or religiously different from us—assuming that the school is itself inclusive and promotes those values. Formal education also tends to promote what is known as political efficacy, or a person’s belief that she can influence public policy through her political behaviors like voting, demonstrating, donating to candidates, and organizing collectively for action. There is some evidence that more democratic forms of school governance can produce even more gains in political efficacy than traditional—i.e., not-very-democratic—school governance. The famous psychologist Jean Piaget once asked and answered an important question: “How are we to bring children to the spirit of citizenship and humanity which is postulated by democratic societies? By the actual practice of democracy at school.” (22)
- James Madison, Federalist #10. November 23, 1787. The Avalon Projectat Yale Law School.
- This example comes from Ginsberg, et al., We the People. 12thedition.
- Andrew Mercer, “5 Things to Know About the Margin of Error in Election Polls,” Pew Research Center. September 8, 2016.
- Tom Bevan, “Pollster Who Got It Right in 2016 Does It Again.” Real Clear Politics. November 10, 2018.
- Anonymous author, “Question Wording,” American Association for Public Opinion Research. No date.
- Craig Charney, “The Top 10 Ways to Get Misleading Poll Results,” Charney Research. July 9, 2007.
- Anonymous author, “Push Polling Targets Mitt Romney,” KSL. November 16, 2007.
- Lawrence Lessig, They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. Pages 141-142.
- Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics. Fall 2014.
- Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy,” The American Political Science Review. March, 1983. Page 181.
- David Hubert, Public Opinion and the Reagan Doctrine: Issue Structure and the Domestic Setting of Foreign Policy. Doctoral Dissertation at the University of Connecticut. 1995.
- E. E. Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People. Hinsdale, IL: The Dryden Press, 1960. Page 126.
- R. J. Reinhart, “Republicans More Positive on U.S. Relations With Russia,” Gallup. July 13, 2018.
- Diana Owen, “Political Socialization,” Oxford Bibliographies. July 20, 2014.
- Emily Laber-Warren, “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives,” Scientific American. September 1, 2012. Vinita Mehta, “Why Liberals and Conservatives Think So Differently,” Psychology Today. February 27, 2017.
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
- James Madison, Federalist #10. November 23, 1787. The Avalon Projectat Yale Law School.
- Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West, Teachers Versus the Public: What Americans Think About Schools and How to Fix Them. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2014.
- L. Eugene Thomas, “Political Attitude Congruence Between Politically Active Parents and College-Age Children: An Inquiry into Family Political Socialization,” Journal of Marriage and Family. May, 1971. Page 379.
- Denise B. Kandel, “Homophily, Selection, and Socialization in Adolescent Friendships,” American Journal of Sociology. September, 1978. Page 435.
- Per Block and Thomas Grund, “Multidimensional Homophily in Friendship Networks,” Network Science. August, 2014. Page 189.
- Ralph Mosher, Robert Kenny, and Andrew Garrod, Preparing for Citizenship. Teaching Youth to Live Democratically. Westport/London: Praeger, 1994. Piaget quoted on page xi.