Political Aspects of Public Opinion Research Paper

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1. Scope And Methods

Public opinion has been usefully defined by V. O. Key Jr. as ‘those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed’ (Key 1961). Scholars of public opinion attempt to describe and account for the politically relevant preferences and beliefs of ordinary citizens, and to assess the political impact of those preferences and beliefs. They investigate a wide range of subject matter, including broad ideologies, specific policy preferences, evaluations of political parties and candidates, assessments of self-interest and collective interest, attributions of political responsibility, and attitudes toward social groups and political institutions (Kinder 1998).

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The study of public opinion draws upon and overlaps the study of political psychology, but tends to focus on collective preferences and beliefs in their broad political context rather than on individual mental processes. For example, the most notable work in the field begins with a psychological account of ‘how citizens acquire information and convert it into public opinion,’ but ‘pays vastly more attention to the social sources of mass attitudes—in particular, the availability of information in elite discourse—than to the largely autonomous operation of people’s minds and psyches’ (Zaller 1992, p. 3).

Obviously, which opinions held by private persons governments will find it prudent to heed, depends significantly upon the political setting. It should not be surprising that systematic attention to the workings of public opinion has been most common in modern liberal democracies, where the preferences and beliefs of ordinary citizens are supposed to be broadly and routinely consequential, whether through elections of public officials, voting in referenda, interest group activities, or other mechanisms. By the same logic, the proliferation of new democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia since the 1980s may be expected to stimulate unprecedented scholarly attention to public opinion in those parts of the world.

Contemporary studies of public opinion are profoundly shaped by insights and concerns stemming from the rise of mass politics in the nineteenth century and from the intertwined evolution of modern democratic states and societies. For example, Zaller’s (1992) influential model of the dynamics of opinion change builds upon Bryce’s (1888) distinction between the ‘active class’ of political entrepreneurs and the ‘passive class’ of ordinary citizens who have ‘been told what to think, and why to think it,’ and upon Lippmann’s (1922) analysis of the role of the mass media and political elites (including government bureaucrats) in shaping ‘the pictures in our head’ that govern our reactions to complex and distant public affairs.

While long-standing insights and concerns are readily recognizable in modern scholarship on public opinion, empirical research in the field has been transformed since the 1940s by the development and proliferation of increasingly ambitious and sophisticated opinion surveys. Semistructured in-depth interviews, focus groups, and laboratory experiments continue to generate valuable insights, but their relatively small scale and problems of external validity make them better suited to the study of individual political psychology than of collective public sentiment. By comparison, an opinion survey with several hundred randomly selected respondents can provide a reasonably accurate representation of the preferences and beliefs of millions of ordinary citizens—public opinion on a scale which governments may well find it prudent to heed.

2. Pioneering Analysis

The pioneering analyses of public opinion based upon survey data were conducted in connection with US presidential elections of the 1940s (Berelson et al. 1954) and 1950s (Campbell et al. 1960). Berelson et al. concluded that election campaigns mostly activate pre-existing political preferences rooted in ethnic, sectional, class, and family traditions and reinforced by social interactions with like-minded acquaintances. Campbell et al. emphasized the central importance of longstanding psychological attachments to the political parties, while also acknowledging the significance of such short-term forces as Dwight Eisenhower’s personal popularity, which overcame but did not supplant the Democratic advantage in party identification dating from the New Deal era. Both of these studies portrayed public opinion as surprisingly thin and unsystematic, arguing, for example, that ‘many people know the existence of few if any of the major issues of policy’ (Campbell et al. 1960, p. 170) and that political preferences ‘are characterized more by faith than by conviction and by wishful expectation rather than careful prediction of consequences’ (Berelson et al. 1954, p. 311).

These uncomplimentary characterizations of public opinion were refined and elaborated in what remains the single most influential (and controversial) work in the field, Philip Converse’s essay on ‘The nature of belief systems in mass publics’ (Converse 1964). Converse’s analysis was based on three primary sorts of evidence. First, he showed that survey respondents answering open-ended questions only rarely made spontaneous use of systematic ideological concepts or language. Second, he showed that respondents’ political views were only weakly constrained by conventional notions of ‘what goes with what’: liberals on one issue often took conservative positions on other issues, even within the same policy domain. Third, repeated interviews with the same respondents demonstrated a great deal of instability in their opinions, and the pattern of that instability suggested that it was caused more by random fluctuation than by systematic responses to political events. On the basis of this evidence, Converse (1964, p. 245) concluded that ‘large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time.’

3. Civic Competence

The civic competence of ordinary citizens has remained a central issue of scholarly debate in the decades since Converse’s devastating analysis. One line of revisionist argument accepted the accuracy of Converse’s characterization of public opinion in the USA of the 1950s, but denied its relevance to other times and places. Most notably, Nie et al. (1976) and others argued that the political upheavals of the 1960s had produced a ‘new American voter’ more sophisticated, more ideological, and more attuned to political issues than the one portrayed by Campbell et al. (1960) and Converse (1964). While this thesis has been subjected to vigorous methodological critiques—and has come with the passage of time to seem at least as time-bound in its own right as the portrayal it aimed to supplant—it focused attention on the potential responsiveness of public opinion to such powerful contextual factors as social change and the nature of political rhetoric.

A newer wave of revisionist scholarship has acknowledged that most citizens in most circumstances are relatively inattentive to politics and uninformed about public affairs, but has interpreted these facts as evidence of ‘rational ignorance’ in Anthony Downs’s sense of avoiding costly information gathering in a realm in which individual investment can have only negligible collective consequences. This interpretation is nicely conveyed by the titles of three notable works of the early 1990s: The Reasoning Voter (Popkin 1991), Reasoning and Choice (Sniderman et al. 1991), and The Rational Public (Page and Shapiro 1992). These and other works argued that ordinary citizens make sense of the political world despite their lack of detailed information about ideologies, policies, and candidates. In some cases, the emphasis is on how citizens use ‘information shortcuts’ and ‘gut reasoning’ (Popkin 1991) to deal efficiently with political complexity. In others, the emphasis is on the tendency of statistical aggregation to iron out individual errors and idiosyncrasies in mass publics, building upon an argument first set forth by Condorcet in the eighteenth century. This ‘extenuationist’ literature (to use a label coined by Robert Luskin) has in turn inspired attempts to measure the extent to which information shortcuts and aggregation actually do mitigate the political effects of ‘rational ignorance.’ For example, Bartels (1996) estimated that individual vote choices in a series of US presidential elections fell about half way between random behavior and hypothetical ‘fully informed’ choices (imputed to each voter by observing the choices of better-informed voters with similar demographic and social characteristics). Deviations from ‘fully informed’ behavior at the individual level were mitigated but not eliminated at the aggregate level: on average, Democrats did almost two percentage points better and incumbent Presidents did almost five percentage points better than they would have if all voters were, in fact, ‘fully informed.’

Normative concerns about the quality of public opinion have also led to the development by James Fishkin and others of ‘deliberative opinion polls’ designed to combine the efficiency and representativeness of conventional opinion surveys with the informative and deliberative aspects of a seminar or town meeting. Rather than simply reporting their existing opinions, respondents are brought together with policy experts, public officials, moderators, and each other to consider political issues in depth. The aim is to find out—and then to publicize—‘what the public would think, if it had a more adequate chance to think about the questions at issue’ (Fishkin 1991, p. 1).

4. Political Consequences Of Public Opinion

Political scientists have been more successful in characterizing and accounting for public opinion than in specifying its role in the broader political process. The path-breaking study by Miller and Stokes (1963) of representation in the US Congress provided a model for much subsequent research examining the relationship between public opinion and elite attitudes and behavior. However, the basic research design employed in these studies—cross-sectional analysis of the impact of constituents’ opinions on the opinions or behavior of individual legislators—is arguably ill-suited to answering questions about the political impact of public opinion in the aggregate, especially in legislative systems marked by strong party discipline or proportional representation, or when crucial policy decisions are made by executives or bureaucrats rather than by legislatures.

An alternative research design focuses on covariation between aggregate public opinion and policy outcomes across political units or in a single political unit over time. The analysis of ‘dynamic representation’ by Stimson et al. (1995) is an ambitious example of this approach, relating variations in the liberalism of America’s ‘public mood’ over a 35-year period to subsequent variations in the behavior of Presidents, Congresses, and courts. A more specialized literature treats fluctuations in presidential popularity not only as a product of political, economic, and international events (as in the pioneering work of Mueller (1973)), but also as a factor in accounting for the varying ability of Presidents to get things done.

Efforts to specify the broad political causes and consequences of public opinion will no doubt be facilitated by the continuing accumulation of survey data over time and space. For example, the cumulative data file of the American National Election Studies project now includes more than 40,000 individual survey respondents in more than two dozen national elections spanning half a century, while the Eurobarometer series includes biannual surveys since 1973 in each of the member states of the European Union. By merging these enormous survey data sets with aggregate-level data reflecting variations in national economic conditions, electoral laws, party platforms and campaign appeals, policy initiatives, media coverage of public affairs, and many other contextual factors, analysts should be able to illuminate important connections between mass opinion and elite behavior, as well as the role of social and political institutions in shaping those connections.

On the other hand, the availability of richly detailed survey data has probably distracted scholarly attention from crucial aspects of public opinion that are not readily operationalized in surveys. For example, Converse’s (1964, pp. 245–6) ‘issue publics’—the various minorities of the public whose ‘activated’ opinions on particular issues of interest are ‘expressed in the writing of letters to the editor, the changing of votes, and the like’—have seldom been subjected to detailed scrutiny. Even more notably, the elusiveness of what Key (1961) referred to as ‘latent opinion’—the preferences and beliefs politicians expect to confront in future elections, after today’s policies have had their effects and tomorrow’s political opponents have had their say— has discouraged political scientists from giving it attention commensurate with its undoubted political significance. In these cases, among others, scholars will have to be more ingenious and eclectic in collecting and analyzing relevant data if they are to place the study of public opinion more squarely in the mainstream of political science.


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