Public Opinion

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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
 Socialization
 Parents
& Family
 Friends & School
 Church, outside organizations
 Experiences
 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
 OPINIONS = DISPOSITIONS + INFORMATION


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?


Representation
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?




VERY LITTLE
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
Assignment


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
Campaigns
Complete the blog
assignment
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