Public Opinion



AP US Government: Mrs. Lacks

What is Public Opinion?

Public Opinion: ‘ Those opinions held by private persons that the government finds it prudent to heed.

” (VO Key)

Aspects of public opinion

Values, ideology, and attitudes

Values: basic principles (morals; what ’ s right and wrong)

Ideology: cohesive set a beliefs that form a philosophy about the role of government (little gov ’ t intervention =

Republican or conservative; much gov ’ t intervention =

Democrat or liberal)

Attitudes: specific issue position

Where do opinions come from?

Agents of socialization


Parents & Family

Friends & School

Church, outside organizations


Political leaders & political institutions

Peers & workplace

Employment & salary

The Media

Where do opinions come from?

Elites (in political science) are people who have high political efficacy

Where do opinions come from?

John Zaller ’ s Model of Public Opinion Change

People receive information

People decide whether to accept it

People sample from these ideas when they report their opinion


Lack of information, or reliance on a specific disposition can lead to misguided opinions.

Ex. Republicans hate poor people.

Ex. Democrats hate the military.

Why do we care about public opinion?


Overall understanding of the direction of government

 ex. When America elected President Obama, we showed that we wanted bigger government; when

America turned around and elected a Republican

Congress, we showed that we wanted the government to step back. (contradictory?)

Overall understanding of how people interact with politics (good for campaigns, getting out issues)

What do Americans think about politics?

False consensus: people overestimate the degree to which others agree with them

Ex. One might vote for a president based on the fact that they agree on abortion, but in actuality, they disagree on many other things.

Why does this happen?

People are grossly uninformed

People vote based on the way a candidate looks

People don ’ t want to be argumentative (they might not know enough)

What do Americans think about politics?


Early studies (1920s & 30s) – very optimistic about the American electorate because people were voting, participating in communities, joining organizations, reading newspapers, etc.

Today ’ s reality (everything written since the 1960s)

– very different

People today are uninformed, unconnected, unengaged, uninterested

A Doom for Democracy?

The Consequences of Low Information

Fear that politicians will take advantage of an unknowing public.

Lack of people meaningfully engaging in politics.

Political outcomes and policies would be different if people were informed.

How do people organize their political beliefs?

When asked to identify beliefs

Some (very few) use strict ideology

Some use ideological ideas, but remain vague on their meanings (most people have weak conceptions of ideology)

Some only see politics in terms of the groups they think are being helped or hurt

Others do not pay attention to the issues at all

How do we know what people know?

Voting habits

Personal encounters

Public opinion polls


Read Philip Converse’s

“The Nature of Belief

Systems in Mass

Publics” & the excerpt from Samuel Popkin’s

The Reasoning Voter:

Communication and

Persuasion in Presidential


Complete the blog assignment