Some scholars argue that most Americans make up responses to survey questions; have no firm opinions about government policy; and are easily swayed by candidates, advocacy groups, or the media. This chapter shows that Americans actually do hold measurable opinions on a wide range of topics and that these opinions shape their political behavior. Furthermore, political process matters: the way individual opinions are formed and the tools used to measure public opinion shape what people demand from government and how politicians respond to those demands.
What Is Public Opinion?
Public opinion is citizens’ views on politics and government actions. It matters for three reasons: (1) citizens’ political actions are driven by their opinions; (2) public opinion helps explain the behavior of candidates, political parties, and other political actors; politicians look to public opinion to determine what citizens want them to do; and (3) public opinion can also shed light on the reasons for specific policy outcomes.
- Describing Public Opinion
Modern theories of public opinion identify two forms of opinions:
- Broad expressions about politics and policies are typically formed early in life and remain stable over time. Liberal-conservative ideology is a way of describing political beliefs in terms of a position on the spectrum running from liberal to moderate to conservative.
- Other opinions on issues seemingly unrelated to politics, such as homosexuality or religion shape Americans’ political opinions.
- Many Opinions Are Latent
A latent opinion is formed on the spot, only when needed. For most Americans, most opinions are latent.
- How People Form Opinions
When opinions are formed on the spot, they are based on considerations, the pieces of relevant information—such as ideology, party identification, religious beliefs, personal circumstances, and so on—that come to mind when the opinion is requested.
Opinions may change as people call up different considerations to form them. Such variation reflects how the average person thinks and develops opinions.
Sources of Opinions
- Socialization: Families and Communities
Theories of political socialization show that many people’s political opinions and partisanship start with what they learned from their parents and surrounding environment.
People can revise their opinions in response to what happens to them and in the world around them. Some events have a greater impact than others, and some people are more likely to change their opinion in response to an event than others.
- Group Identity
Social categories or groups, such as gender, race, or education level, may influence an individual’s opinion. Called cohort effects, these characteristics might shape opinion in three ways:
- People learn about politics from the people around them.
- People may rely on others who “look like” them as a source of opinions.
- Candidates and political consultants often formulate their campaign strategies in terms of groups.
- Politicians and Other Political Actors
Politicians and other political actors, such as political parties and party leaders, influence and change opinion because people rely on their presumed experience. These leaders work to shape public opinion in order to win support for their proposals.
Measuring Public Opinion
Most information about public opinion generally comes from mass surveys, with the goal of measuring the attitudes of a particular population or group of people. Because it is often impossible to interview every member of a large group, surveys typically involve a sample of between a few hundred and several thousand individuals.
- Mass Surveys
Large-scale surveys use various types of questions to measure public opinion. One type of survey question measures preferences using an issue scale, a survey response format in which respondents select their answers from a range of positions between two extremes.
- Problems in Measuring Public Opinion
Surveys are composed of random samples, small subsets of the population being studied. Building a truly random sample is costly, and different survey techniques will trade off on whether they want to emphasize cost or randomness.
Another problem with surveys is that people are sometimes reluctant to reveal their opinions and instead choose to give socially acceptable answers or answers that they think the interviewer wants to hear (called social desirability bias).
- The Accuracy of Public Opinion
Inaccurate survey results may be attributable to poor design or misinterpretation of questions. In some cases, inaccurate results are due to the fact that people do not take surveys seriously. Furthermore, respondents may be unwilling to admit that they do not know about something and therefore make up an answer. Studies show that a respondent’s ability to express an opinion, as well as the accuracy of his or her opinions, increases if the questions being asked have something to do with everyday life.
Characteristics of American Public Opinion
In order to understand what America’s national government does and why, we must consider the characteristics of American public opinion in detail.
- Ideological Polarization
There is little evidence of ideological polarization in public opinion. A strong majority of Americans continue to identify themselves as moderates.
The issues that gain public recognition are those about which people disagree, but they comprise only a small portion of all of the issues that exist. Strong dissent on most political issues appears to be true only because there is no reason to gather data on issues about which a vast majority of Americans hold the same opinion.
- Evaluations of Government and Officeholders
It is also important to consider how people view their government: how well or poorly they think their government is doing, whether they trust government, and their evaluations of individual policies. Citizens’ evaluations of specific policies ultimately influence their willingness to vote for incumbent candidates.
Trends in public opinion show levels of trust in government declining steadily since the 1960s. Low levels of trust make it harder for elected officials to enact new policies, especially those that require large expenditures. Although Americans do not like their government in general, they tend to be far happier with their own representatives in Washington.
- Policy Preferences
One useful summary measure of Americans’ policy preferences is the policy mood, which captures what the public wants the government to do in society. Changes in the policy mood in America have led to changes in defense spending, environmental policy, and race-related policies, and have influenced elections. Most people have weak opinions, with strong opinions on only a few salient issues.
- Does Public Opinion Influence Government?
Many of the arguments about the irrelevance of public opinion hinge on misreading poll results. Despite the limitations of public opinion, public opinion exerts clear influence in widespread areas of government. Although politicians try to shape public opinion, they are also responsive to constituents’ opinions in the short run. It is difficult to find a major policy that did not have majority support in the electorate at the time it was made.
The News Media
- Media Sources
While national newspapers tend to have a large, worldwide staff, smaller papers tend to emphasize local events and rely on wire services like the Associated Press or Thomson Reuters for their coverage of national or international news. Circulation and advertising revenues are forcing cutbacks in most newspaper organizations
Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and The Economist have widespread circulation and offer in-depth coverage of the news. By contrast, most expressly political magazines, such as the New Republic and The Nation have very small audiences.
Major television networks offer prime-time news programs, though several cable stations offer continuous news coverage, resulting in a 24-hour news cycle.
Most political programs on radio are centered on a single, strongly opinionated, generally conservative, individual who fields questions and comments from listeners and offers his or her own insights.
The Internet is a growing source of information. While there are some electronic versions of other kinds of media, there are also Internet-specific sources like Politico.com The Internet also provides a forum for the average citizen to voice his or her opinion for the world to hear.
- What Difference Does the Internet Make?
The Internet makes a wide range of news sources available to the citizenry while lowering the barriers to publication and encouraging the development of “home-grown media” and aspiring political reporters.
Despite the wealth of information available online, there is no conclusive evidence that citizens are better informed politically than they were before the rise of Internet-based news.
While many people use the Internet, many people do not know where to look for political information. Much of the information available online is of questionable reliability. Most people do not search a wide range of sources but tend to focus narrowly on sites that share their political views. Most Americans are not interested in reading “boring” stories about politics.
- Regulating the Media
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established in 1934 to regulate broadcast media.
The chief purpose of the FCC was to ensure that no single broadcast corporation could monopolize a community and provide only one point of view. The FCC enacted the fairness doctrine and the equal time provision with the goal of maintaining political neutrality.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated media and communications, accelerating the trends of concentration (one company owning multiple media sources in a region) and cross-ownership (one company owning several media outlets in a region), and giving rise to media conglomerates such as Viacom.
- Media Effects on American Citizens and Government Policy
The influence of the media’s political coverage on the average citizen’s thoughts or actions is called media effect.
Modern theories of media influence point to four main media effects that largely shape a citizen’s viewpoint:
- Filtering: journalist's’ and editors’ decisions about what information to report
- Slant: giving favorable coverage to one candidate or policy without providing a balanced perspective
- Priming: the altering of the public’s image of a candidate caused by negative or positive coverage of the candidate
- Framing: influence as a result of the way a story is presented, including or excluding details, explanations, or context
These media effects do not imply that all reports are deliberately spun and intended to sway the audience one way or another. Rather, space or time limitations in print or broadcasts will often result in unintended media effects.