Public Opinion

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Public Opinion

    The term public opinion has two distinct meanings.  It can mean, firstly, all the opinions of the American public on any issue that can be measured through a public opinion poll.  Secondly, it can be meant to apply more restrictively to only those opinions of the public that are concerned with issues of government and politics.

    In a political science course, we are interested in the opinions of the public on issues concerning government and politics, that is on public policy issues.  As political scientists, we are not interested in who is most likely to win the next World Series in Baseball.  Thus we are not interested in the broader, first, definition of public opinion.

Political Culture and Socialization

    Culture refers to the ideals, values, and technological know-how of the society into which we are born.  Political Culture is the subset of values and practices relating to government and politics.

    Socialization is the process whereby children learn about the culture of their society.  Political socialization is that part of the general socialization process whereby members of society learn about their governmental and political practices.

    Demographic factors play an important role in the socialization process.  The following demographic characteristics are discussed on our WEB page called U.S. Democraphics.  


Total Population


Section or Region of Country








Hispanic Origin







bulletNational Origin

It should be noted that public opinion is a composite of many individual and group opinions.  It is not a single monolithic whole.  There are always disagreements. There are always minority opinions and opposition to the dominant consensus.  There are:

  1. Sectional differences:  Yankees, Southerners, Mid-Westerners, Californians.

  2. Generational differences:  World War II generation, Vietnam War generation, 9-11 generation.

  3.  Gender differences:  men, women.

  4. Religious differences:  Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim.

  5. Race differences:  White, Black, Asian

  6. Linguistic differences:  English, Spanish

  7. National Origins differences:  European, African, Asian, Hispanic

Social Groupings and Organized Groups

American society can be divided into many social groups on the basis of cultural differences.  It is these cultural differences, which make demographic distinctions relevant to the formation of public opinion.  Differences of race, national origin, and language become important because they expose cultural differences between different groups.  If white and black Americans had identical opinions on most matters of government and politics, then skin pigmentation would become irrelevant as a determinant of public opinion.

Social groupings are unorganized except for their common cultural characteristics.  But many social groups form voluntary associations of likeminded members.  The National Organization of Women represents a segment of the women population; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) represents a segment of the black population.  

Organized groups have a membership, who pay dues, have by-laws, annual meetings, and officers.  These officers speak for the organization.  Organized groups have a concreteness that social groupings lack.  When organized groups begin to interest themselves in securing benefits from the government, then they become interest groups.  


Formation of Public Opinion

Step 1:  A political event takes place.

Step 2:  The Media reports on the event.

Step 3:  Individuals respond to the event and the reporting based on their prior political socialization and knowledge.

Step 4:  Peer groups and other social groupings form opinions on the event.

Step 5:  Public opinion polls measure national public opinion about an event.  Elections can be viewed as a vast public opinion poll.

Public Opinion has been formed.

    It should be noted that the media play an important role in public opinion formation.  Without reporting by the media, political events would depend on eye witnesses and word of mouth communication.  How the media report on an event, and whether they report the event at all, becomes critically important.  Politically speaking, events that are not reported or noticed by the public never happened.  Much of what takes place in government and politics is not reported and does not enter the consciousness of the general public.  Thus it has no practical bearing on the formation of public opinion.

    It should further be noted that the general public, and the various publics (social groupings) out of which it is formed, respond to events that are brought to their attention in terms of their prior socialization, group memberships, and political knowledge.  Individuals are not a kind of Lockean tabula rasa, a clean slate.  How they respond to events depends on their prior political education.  Two individuals may respond to the same event in entirely different ways:  one may put a conservative and the other a liberal spin on the event.

Public Opinion Polls

    The group whose political opinions we are interested in measuring is called the universe.  Since not all members of large groups can be individually polled, public opinion polls interview only a sample of the total universe.  This sample must be representative of the polling universe if the public opinion poll is to be valid.  An unrepresentative sample produces inaccurate, or scewed, results.

    The magazine Literary Digest conducted many early public opinion polls by mailing out questionnaires.  In 1936, it polled the country about who would win the presidential election that year and predicted that Alf Landon, the Republican, would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat.  More than two million questionnaires were returned.  What went wrong?

    The magazine used telephone numbers and car registrations to generate its mailing list.  Households with cars and phones were not representative of the American people in 1936.  The Literary Digest's poll was not based on a representative sample of the American voting public.  

    There are two ways to generate representative samples.  The first method is to generate a  truly randomly generated sample.  The second method is called quota sampling.  Polling organizations generate a model sample of the polling universe.  Each social grouping in the universe is proportionately represented in the polling model.  Care is taken that each social group is contacted and responds as required.

National public opinion polls are based on samples of about 1500 persons.  As long as the sample is statistically representative of the universe, then increasing the number of persons receiving the poll will increase the accuracy of the poll only marginally.  To fully understand public opinion polls, you need to be both a demographer and a statistician.  Statistics is a very important element of political science.  Below is a list of Internet resources on public opinion polling.

University of Miami Libraries, Public Opinion Polls on the Internet

Columbia University Butler Library Reference Department

The Gallop Organization

The Harris Poll, Harris Interactive

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press

The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research,

Political Ideologies

Political Ideologies are consciously held systems of beliefs about government and politics.  By tradition, dating back to the National Assembly during the French Revolution, ideologies are grouped from left to right.

                                        LEFT                                RIGHT

Communism  Socialism  Liberalism  Conservatism  Authoritarianism  Nazism

Most Americans fall within the Liberal/Conservative spectrum, which is actually quite moderate.  Liberals and Conservatives share many common values within the American political context.  Both accept the U.S. Constitution, ideas about democracy, and respect for private property.  Their disagreements, which can at times become quite strident, are actually more matters of degree than total substantive disagreements.  The underlying consensus of American politics should be viewed as a strength of our system.  Some of their differences on various issues are illustrated below.

                                                    Liberal                              Conservative

Economy                           Regulate                                 Hands Off

Social Welfare                  More Benefits for Poor         Self Reliance

Morality Issues                 Different Life Styles              Traditional Family Values

Civil Rights                       Affirmative Action                 No Group Rights

National Security              Prudent Defense                    Better Safe Than Sorry

US Role in the World       Multilateral Engagement      Isolationist Tendencies
                                                                                                 and Unilateral Action

Purpose of Government    Help the People                    Limited Role

Private or Public Solutions Government Solutions      Private Charity & Actions

Federalism Questions          National Solutions             Local or State Solutions



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Updated January 3, 2011
Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016