Chapter 6
Public Opinion
Public Opinion
Public Opinion
• Democratic governments should reflect the will of the
• How do we know what the public wants?
• Where does public opinion originate?
• Average citizens do not always have vast information
about issues or elections, yet can form opinions about
such matters.
• What factors influence public opinion in the presence or
absence of relevant information?
Understanding Public Opinion
• Public opinion: the values and attitudes that people
have about issues, events, and personalities.
• Values (or beliefs): a person’s basic orientations to
• Political ideology: a cohesive set of beliefs that
form a general philosophy about government.
• Attitude (or opinion): specific view about a
particular issue, personality or event
Fundamental Values
Most Americans subscribe to these principles
Political Values
• Political socialization: the process through which
underlying political beliefs and values are formed.
• Our underlying beliefs tend to shape how we
approach new information.
• Life experiences: family upbringing, social groups,
education, and the general political climate shape
underlying beliefs.
Influences on Our Political Values
• Family: stories we hear growing up are highly
influential when narratives are coherent and
• Social groups: people with similar traits or
backgrounds have similar life experiences that
shape their understanding of the political world.
Influences on Our Political Values
Influences on Our Political Values
National Security Opinion Differences Between
Men & Women
The Gender Gap: men and women often see issues differently,
potentially due to their different life experiences.
Influences on Our Political Values
• Religion
– Religion can be powerful if it repeats stories, ceremonies,
and rituals that tell its members about who they are and
how they should see the world.
Influences on Our Political Values
• Lifetime social and political context
Peace, wartime, stability or not
Economic prosperity and downturns
Race and gender relations
Recency/distance from immigrant experience
Political Ideologies
• Ideology: set of underlying orientations, ideas, beliefs
• Liberalism and conservatism are two main political ideologies
in the United States today.
• Ideology is associated but not synonymous with partisanship.
• One may be conservative or liberal no matter what parties
happen to exist in a given country or point in time.
Influences on Our Political Values
From Political Values to Ideology
Political Ideologies: Liberalism
• Domestic issues
– Government involvement in economy to protect workers,
expand social services
– Advocate for poor minorities, women, consumers, and the
– Separation of church and state
• Foreign affairs
– Oppose sending American troops to influence the domestic
affairs in other countries
– Support for international organizations
Political Ideologies: Conservatism
• Domestic issues
– Oppose social and economic engineering, such as wealth
redistribution and affirmative action
– Favor light business/industry regulation, low taxes for
higher earners, traditional family structures, and school
• Foreign affairs
– Support stronger military power and spending
– Less supportive of international organizational efforts and
Profile of a Liberal: Representative Nancy Pelosi
Profile of a Conservative: House Speaker John
How We Form Political Opinions
• Ideology plays a role.
– Not all issues are clearly defined ideologically.
– Most citizens are especially ideological.
– Many issues can be framed in multiple ways.
• Or, actually have multiple dimensions that could
manifest as liberal and/or conservative.
Americans’ Shifting Ideology,
Political Knowledge
• Political knowledge
– Most Americans have limited political knowledge.
– Political knowledge is associated with levels of efficacy and
trust in government.
• Those with limited political knowledge
– May rely on sound bites as facts
– Information intimidation: complicated topics
– Time cost: do not want or have time to devote to studying
issues or contests
Shaping Public Opinion
• Three very powerful sources of influence over public
– Political leaders
– Private groups
– The media
Government and the Shaping of Public Opinion
Shaping Public Opinion
• Government
– Presidential administrations have enormous capacities to
shape public opinion
• Stress certain issues and not others
• Influence how departments depict issues
• Use the “bully pulpit”
– Rally around the flag effect
• The media, and the public, will turn attention to issues
that the administration advances
Shaping Public Opinion
• Private groups
Interest groups, churches, community organizations
Very deep and wide reach into society
Deploy specific knowledge effectively
Through press releases, blogs, and other efforts can
communicate their messages broadly to reach like-minded
individuals easily
The Media and Public Opinion
Shaping Public Opinion
• Media
– Are very effective at telling Americans what issues are
– Can, at times, frame what it means for a politician to be
– Can sometimes also shape how people understand the
meaning of the conflict
Measuring Public Opinion
• Polling
– Sample
• Probability sampling
• Random digit dialing
– Selection bias
– Sample size
– Margin of error
Measuring Public Opinion
• Survey design
– Measure error
• Question wording
• Push polling (some surveys intentionally biased)
• Salient interests, the illusion of saliency
• Bandwagon effect
It Depends on How You Ask
Who Thinks Economic Inequality
is a Problem?
By income
Percentage who said there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts
between rich and poor
< $20,000
> $75,000
SOURCE: Pew Research Center, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict between Rich and Poor,” January 11, 2012, (accessed 5/10/12).
By ideology
Percentage who said there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts
between rich and poor
SOURCE: Pew Research Center, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict between Rich and Poor,” January 11, 2012, (accessed 5/10/12).
By ideology
Percentage who said there are “strong” or “very strong” conflicts
between rich and poor
SOURCE: Pew Research Center, “Rising Share of Americans See Conflict between Rich and Poor,” January 11, 2012, (accessed 5/10/12).
Two Pollsters and Their Records (1948–2012)
Public Opinion and Democracy
• Why don’t leaders always follow public opinion?
– How strongly do people hold opinions?
– The structure of American government
– Governing often involves compromise.
Public Opinion and Democracy
Public Opinion Poll
Do you agree or disagree that American policy and
laws reflect the preferences and opinions of most
American people most of the time?
a) Strongly agree (does reflect American opinion)
b) Agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree (doesn’t reflect American opinion)
Public Opinion Poll
Do you think people rely primarily on their feelings
or specific facts when determining their own
personal positions on issues and candidate
a) Mostly feelings
b) Mostly facts
Public Opinion Poll
Some political leaders are more concerned with
public opinion than others. Some elected officials
lean more heavily on their own judgment rather
than popular sentiment. Which do you believe is
more appropriate in a democracy?
a) Political leaders should be most concerned with
public opinion and govern according to mass policy
b) Political leaders should be less concerned with
public opinion and govern based on their judgment.
Public Opinion Poll
Which of the following do you think has had the
greatest influence on your political values?
Social groups (racial, religious, national)
Political conditions/experiences
Public Opinion Poll
Thinking about your two closest friends, would you
say your views on political topics are:
a) Very similar
b) Some similar some different
c) Very different
Chapter 6: Public Opinion
• Quizzes
• Flashcards
• Outlines
• Exercises
Following this slide, you will find additional images,
figures, and tables from the textbook.
Public Opinion
Public Opinion
Digital Citizens
Political Ideology
Political Ideology
America in the World
Political Knowledge and Public Opinion
Political Knowledge and Public Opinion
Is There a Culture War in America?
Measuring Public Opinion from Surveys
Government Responsiveness to Public Opinion
Does Everyone’s Opinion Count Equally?
Sampling Techniques and Selection Bias