Political scientist V. O. Key defined public opinion as “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” In a democratic system, where regular elections determine control of the government and citizens have the right to express their opinions freely, join organizations, and vote, politicians must take public opinion into account if they want to be effective and keep their jobs.
Scientific techniques for measuring public opinion were developed in the 20th century, though problems with question wording and the representativeness of samples suggest caution in interpreting survey results. Modern presidents and other politicians use polling to regularly survey public opinion on important questions and hire public relations staff to manage and mobilize it. The advent of scientific polling has contributed to the nationalization of American politics by producing collective expressions of opinion that politicians ignore at their peril.
Americans share a broad consensus on basic political values but disagree about how those values should be applied. The public’s diverse opinions often represent differences in background, education, and life experiences.
Individual political opinions develop through political socialization and are influenced by a variety of sources, including attitudes, ideologies, and partisan affiliations. The latter provide cues that enable individuals to store the results of previous experience or decide upon a course of action with little cognitive effort. Most individuals have no incentive to pay attention to politics and are ambivalent about many political issues. As a result, individual opinion, especially among the less informed, is often unstable. Individuals’ opinions are susceptible to framing—efforts by the media and political campaigns to influence the criteria that individuals use to evaluate a political candidate or issue.
Despite the instability of individual opinion, aggregate public opinion is both stable and coherent. Part of its stability is attributable to opinion leaders—individuals and groups that are incentivized to collect and disseminate information about particular issues. Opinion leaders provide cues that even uninformed citizens can use to make informed decisions. Because people can and do choose which leaders to follow, according to values and beliefs accumulated over a lifetime, public opinion is not easily controlled or manipulated. Indeed, individuals’ core values, ideologies, and even party preferences are resistant to change and continue to give shape and stability to aggregate public opinion over time.
- Why, despite growing opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was there very little discussion of health care reform during the 2012 general election campaign?
- In 1936 the Literary Digest ran a “straw poll” that mistakenly predicted that Franklin Roosevelt would be defeated in his reelection attempt. What factors undermine the accuracy of such polls? What factors can undermine the accuracy of even “scientific” polling?
- How have modern techniques for molding and measuring public opinion contributed to the nationalization of American politics?
- Do voters think in terms of ideologies? Are voters’ attitudes generally consistent? If not, what explains the inconsistency?
- Given the mechanisms through which politicians and the media can influence it, does public opinion really matter?
- Since aggregate opinion is simply the combination of all individual opinions, how can it be more stable and coherent than individual opinion?
- Who are opinion leaders? Why might typical individuals rely on the statements or positions of these opinion leaders in forming their own opinions? What are the limits on how much these opinion leaders can control public opinion?
- On which topics does the American public agree or disagree on basic political values and policies? How does this agreement or disagreement make politics possible or necessary?
- How did popular support for the war in Iraq change over time? How did the changes for Republicans, Democrats, and independents differ?
- In what areas do men and women differ most in their opinions? Differ least?