The role of public opinion in politics has been hotly debated throughout American history. The founders devised a Constitution that would limit the influence of the masses. Today, some changes in the rules have given the public a greater role in government.
Politicians and the media watch public opinion very closely. Elected officials look for job security by responding to immediate public desires or by skillfully predicting future requests. The media make large investments in polls, sometimes covering public attitudes on a candidate or issue as a story in itself.
There are two competing visions of citizenship in America. The ideal democratic citizen demonstrates political knowledge, possesses an ideology (usually liberal or conservative), tolerates different ideas, and votes consistently. At the other extreme lies the apolitical, self-interested citizen. Most Americans fall somewhere between these extremes, but factors such as age, higher education, and improved socioeconomic status seem to contribute to behavior that is closer to the ideal.
Political socialization—the transfer of fundamental democratic values from one generation to the next—is affected by demographic characteristics such as race and gender, and by life experiences such as education and religion. Interest groups, political parties, and candidates all attempt to determine the political ideas shared by various groups in order to gain their support.
While most politicians pay attention to their own informal samplings of opinion, they have also come to rely on professional polling. Modern polling science surveys a random sample of the population, controlling for sample bias and keeping sampling error as small as possible. Such polls are based on scientific polling methods that focus on getting a good sample and asking questions that yield valid results. Benchmark polls, tracking polls, and exit polls are used in running and covering campaigns to varying degrees. Pseudo-polls like call-in polls, most Internet polls, or push polls are used to manipulate rather than measure public opinion.
Even though Americans do not measure up to the ideal of the democratic citizen, there is much evidence to support the idea that public opinion does play a large role in government policy. While some citizens may seem apolitical and disinterested, many use rational information shortcuts like on-line processing and the two-step flow of information, through which they get cues from opinion leaders to make their voting decisions. Policymakers have responded by staying generally responsive to public preferences.