|Home||Student Resources||Chapter 11: Public Opinion and Political Socializati|
Public opinion and polling was front page news and the opening story in November 2000. Television and Web-based news organizations called the state of Florida for Al Gore early in the evening based on exit polls. Shortly thereafter, they had to retract that call and Florida remained hotly contested for weeks! Recounts, vilification, lawsuits, and weeks of distress followed before the U.S. Supreme Court stopped all further vote counting essentially granting the election to George W. Bush. Polls flew, predictions vacillated, and pundits pontificated. The loser in all of this may have been political polling and the tradition of calling elections based on projections instead of actual votes. Americans learned that elections were not high tech in many places and that there were lots and lots of mistakes, spoiled ballots, and problems in American elections. We also learned that there are bad polls out there. How do you tell a bad poll from a good one? Let's examine attitudes, where they come from, and how you measure them.
What is Public Opinion?
Public opinion is "what the people think about an issue or set of issues at any given point in time," and opinions are normally measured by opinion polls. Polls are interviews or surveys of a sample of citizens (it is too expensive and time-consuming to ask everyone!) used to estimate how the public feels about an issue or set of issues.
Okay. Seems straightforward, but I see several problems just in the definitions. Let's see how many problems we can discover here. First, the phrase "at any given point in time" implies that opinions change over time. Second, we are assuming that people know what they think and that polls measure those thoughts. Is that a fair assumption? Sampling could also be problematic. How can a subset of the population represent the views of everyone? We are going to use polls to "estimate" public opinion-hmmm. And those are just a few of the problems that I can think of. In this lecture, we will address these problems and the nature of public opinion and polling, as well as the uses of polls and whether those uses are in the public good or whether polls are a serious problem for democracy.
Efforts to Influence and Measure Public Opinion
Public opinion polling as we know it today developed in the 1930s. Pollsters used scientific methods to measure attitudes. Methods of gathering and analyzing data improved over the years, and survey data began to play an important role in politics and social life. Political leaders today believe that polling and public opinion are important as policy-making tools, and so it is important to understand its history and the current uses of public opinion polling.
Early Efforts to Measure Public Opinion
As early as 1824, newspapers have tried to predict election winners using polls. In 1883, the Boston Globe used exit polls to try to predict winners. And in 1916, Literary Digest mailed survey postcards to potential voters in an attempt to predict the outcome. From 1920 to 1932, they predicted every presidential election correctly.
Literary Digest used straw polls that are now seen as highly problematic. They lucked out by correctly predicting four elections, but their luck ran out in 1936 when they predicted that Alf Landon would beat FDR. FDR won in a landslide taking all but two states.
Straw polls simply ask as many people as possible a given set of questions. They do not choose a sample in a random and scientific manner so that the sample will represent the population. Literary Digest made several important errors: 1) they sampled from telephone directories and car ownership records, thus over-sampling upper and middle class people and those with Republican sympathies; 2) they mailed their questionnaires in early September and opinion changed before the November elections; and 3) they committed the sin of self-selection. Only highly motivated people returned the survey, so the survey over-sampled better educated, politically interested, and wealthier people, again more Republicans.
George Gallup, however, successfully predicted the 1936 election. His company, the Gallup Corporation, continues to be quite successful in predicting electoral outcomes.
The American Voter was published in 1960 and continues to influence the way we think of mass attitudes and behavior. This book studied the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections and discussed how class coalitions led to party affiliation. These early studies led to the National Elections Study (NES), which still drives the research of political scientists interested in voting behavior.
How Political Socialization and Other Factors Influence Opinion Formation
Political attitudes are grounded in values. We learn these values by a process known as political socialization. Many factors influence opinion formation. The most important are:
Why We Form Political Opinions
Personal Benefits-Conventional wisdom holds that Americans are more "me-oriented" today than ever before. People therefore tend to choose policies that will benefit them. For example, the elderly favor Social Security. When policies don't affect us personally, we often have trouble forming an opinion. Foreign policy is a prime example since most Americans know little about the rest of the world.
Political Knowledge-Americans are highly literate and over 82 percent graduate from high school. We also have access to a wide range of higher education. However, we don't know much about politics! In 2002, a Department of Education report found that most high school seniors have a poor grasp of history. Only 33 percent of people can identify their own representative to Congress. We are also generally geographically illiterate with most Americans unable to find the Persian Gulf or Vietnam on a map. However, most of us have political opinions guided by issues, events, people, ideology, or something else.
Cues from Leaders-Low levels of knowledge make public opinion highly changeable. Rapid opinion shifts are common when the public does not have much information on an issue or if the information is bad. Political leaders and the media can often have a large effect on public opinion since we don't know much and don't seem to care much either.
How Public Opinion is Measured
Public officials learn about public opinion in many ways: through election results; citizen contact such as phone calls, faxes, and e-mails about issues and policies; letters to the editor in newspapers or magazines; and public opinion polls or surveys. In order for a poll to be reliable, it must have several characteristics:
There are a number of sampling techniques. Some of the techniques are poor and should be avoided such as nonstratified sampling, straw polls, and most nonprobability sampling methods. A more reliable nonprobability method is a quota sample in which a pollster ensures representativeness using quotas. For example, in a citywide survey, respondents should reflect the make-up of the city-so 30 percent African American, 15 percent Hispanic, and so on.
Most national surveys use stratified sampling. A simple random sample of the American population would not be a very good predictor of election results since not everyone votes.
In general, you should never trust a poll that does not tell you the question wording, the sampling method, and the ways in which respondents were contacted. Reputable and reliable pollsters will also tell you the number of respondents (the "n") and the error rate (+ or - 5 percent) so that you can determine for yourself whether to believe the results. Any poll that tells you to call 555-9712 for yes and 555-9713 for no is unscientific and unreliable. The same is true of Internet polls that say you should register your opinion now. These are not random samples at all!
Tracking polls-continuous surveys that enable a campaign to chart its daily rise and fall in popularity. These are small samples and conducted every 24 hours. They are fraught with reliability problems but may be a decent measure of trends.
Push polls-push polls try to lead the subject to a specified conclusion and the worst are designed simply to "push" subjects away from candidates by linking them to negative events or traits in the question.
Exit polls-polls conducted at polling places on Election Day.
Shortcomings of Polling
Bad reporting and bad polling can change political campaigns, hurt careers, and have other bad consequences. And there are large numbers of bad polls out there. It is our job to learn how to consume polls critically so that we ignore the bad polls and take "good" polls with an understanding of their shortcomings.
Sampling Error-the margin of error or sampling error is quite small if the sample is carefully selected. All polls contain some error, 3 to 5 percent is considered a reasonably small rate of error. A 3-percent error rate means that the poll is 97-percent accurate! These rates become extremely important if a race is close:
Do these numbers tell you anything? No. The contestants are only four points apart, given the error rate the real race could look like this:
Limited Respondent Options-have you ever taken a survey (or a test) and said I don't like any of the answers? If the options are not broad enough, you get bad results.
Lack of Information-if surveys ask questions about things that the respondents don't understand or don't know about, the answers will often be invalid. The use of filter questions is helpful here such as "have you thought about...?"
Intensity-polls do not measure intensity well. You will learn a position on an issue but not how strong that opinion might be.
How Polling and Public Opinion Affect Politicians, Politics, and Policy
Now comes the most important questions of all: So what? Do polls affect the political process? If so, how and to what effect? Are they benign ways of measuring the attitudes of a democratic citizenry,or are they malignant attempts to control and manipulate the people?
Politicians and others (including the media) spend millions of dollars on polls. How are they used? What is their effect? These are difficult questions. How good and accurate are most polls? Do politicians know much about polling? Do they attempt to make sure that their polls are accurate, reliable, and scientific? Or not?
Polls can actually change opinions too. Is all this polling really measuring public opinion or forming it? And is the answer to that question a problem or concern?
Public opinion fluctuates-sometimes wildly. Should politicians follow public opinion? Lead it? Ignore it? Guide it?
After discussing polls and attitudes, what do you think?