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? Lets 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 opinionhmmm. 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.
I usually ask students to surf the Web and bring in examples of what they see as good and bad polls. All of the students turn them in and I choose a few as examples to illustrate possible problems and possible benefits of polling. Some even bring in direct mail polls that are a lot of fun to discuss in class.
Early 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.
Early Election Forecasting and Polling Matures
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.
What Went Wrong?
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 oversampling 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 oversampled 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, Public Opinion, and Political Socialization
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.
Political Socialization and Other Factors That 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. (I usually ask the students how they think their political attitudes have formed and what factors have influenced them the most. I also ask them about their formative political experiencesnowadays many only remember the Persian Gulf War or Clinton's early travailsand how that affects them). The most important are:
We then discuss what each of these factors is and how they affect political attitudes. For example, if your parents are Republicans, what are you likely to be and why? Is this always the case? How might religion affect political attitudes? The most obvious would be the Christian Coalition or Jews supporting Israel...but what else? Do race and gender matter and if so how and when? What effect do events have? Watergate affected an entire generation...will the Clinton troubles affect this one? How and why?
How We Form Political Opinions
Personal Benefitsconventional 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 KnowledgeAmericans are highly literate and over 82% graduate from high school. We also have access to a wide range of higher education. However, we don't know much about politics! In 1994, fewer than 50% of people could name the Speaker of the House, and 94% could not identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only 33% of people could 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 LeadersLow 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 We Measure Public Opinion
Public officials learn about public opinion in many ways: through election results; citizen contact such as phone calls, faxes, and emails 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:
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%) 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!
Types of Polls
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.
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 fluctuatessometimes wildly. Should politicians follow public opinion? Lead it? Ignore it? Guide it?
After discussing polls and attitudes, what do you think?