Outline of Lecture • What is public opinion and why should we care about it? • What do Americans think and know about politics? • How do people organize their political beliefs? • How do we measure public opinion? • Where do people’s opinions come from? • How do people “make do” with weak ideologies and low information?
What is PUBLIC OPINION? • Public Opinion: • “Those opinions held by private persons that government finds it prudent to heed.” - V. O. Key (prominent political scientist) • Aspects of public opinion: • Values, Ideology, and Attitudes. • Values = Basic principles • Ideology = Cohesive set of beliefs that form a philosophy about the role of government. • Attitudes = Specific issue position.
Why should we care about public opinion? • Representation • Important for understanding the political system generally • Commonly used in political science to understand how people interface with politics.
Public Opinion:What do Americans think about politics? • Consensus • False Consensus = the proclivity of people to overestimate the degree to which people agree with them. • Example: People who support defense spending are more likely to think others ALSO support defense spending. • WHY the false consensus? • Similar associations • Group think • Denigration of opposing views • Actual level of consensus – Grossly inflated.
Public Opinion: What do people know about politics? • VERY LITTLE. • Early studies – Optimistic. • Today’s reality – very different. • People are: • Uninformed • Unengaged • Uninterested • Unconnected
A doom for democracy? The Consequences of Low Information • Fear that politicians will take advantage of an unknowing public. • Some argue that people cannot meaningfully engage in politics without some sort of political info. • Political outcomes and policies might be different if people were informed.
Public Opinion:How do people organize their political beliefs? • When asked to identify beliefs… • Some people (very few) use ideology • Some use ideological ideas, but remain vague on their meanings • Others see politics in terms of the groups being helped or hurt • Others do not pay much attention to issues at all
What is “ideology?” First, some definitions… Ideology = Consistent pattern of opinion on particular issues that stems from a core basic belief. • Liberal = usually refers to a stand that favors a larger, more active government. Most Democrats today can be described as liberal. • Conservative = usually refers to a stand that opposes an activist government in the realm of economics, and supports stronger activity in promoting good moral activities.
Characteristics of Ideology 1. “Ideology” is used by only a part of the public. 2. The underlying logic is not theoretical, but associative.
Characteristics of Ideology, continued 3. Weak conceptualization. 4. Ideological thinking seems susceptible to change.
IDEOLOGY RECONSIDERED POLICY MOOD, 1958-2000
FINAL POINTS ON IDEOLOGY • Caveats • Alternate structures (values) • Ambivalence • What this means for how we understand public opinion and political behavior
How do we measure public opinion? First, HOW DO POLITICIANS KNOW THE PUBLIC? • Personal contact • Voting • Public opinion polls
Designing a Poll • Choose the questions you want to ask. • Design survey • Select the population you wish to sample from.
Designing a Poll, continued • Determine how large your sample should be. • Choose the method to administer the poll. • Administer the poll and collect the public opinion data.
PROBLEMS WITH POLLING • Citizens • Pollsters • Media coverage of polls
Where do people’s opinions come from? • Agents of Socialization • SOCIALIZATION • Family • Schools • Churches • EXPERIENCES • Political Leaders and Political Institutions • Peers, Workplace • The Media
ZALLER’S MODEL OF PUBLIC OPINION CHANGE Where do opinions come from? • People receive information. • People decide whether to accept it. • Sample from these ideas when they report their opinions. opinions = dispositions + information
exposure opinion change acceptance political sophistication Part 1: A MODEL OF OPINION CHANGE
Bush led the country after 9-11. Bush has trouble eating pretzels. “W.“ promised to crack down on corporate fraud. MEMORY Bush seems weak on the economy. Part 2: FORMING OPINIONS • Memory-based model • Accessibility • Response
Gore supports the environment. + + Gore looks like Bigfoot. + ONLINE TALLY (GORE) + MEMORY Al is a pal of education. - Gore seems like a policy wonk. FORMING OPINIONS – Competing Model • Online model • Online tally • Role of memory
WHY PAY ATTENTION? • Not paying attention can be rational • Cost/benefit analysis • An informed public is not without its benefits though
LOW INFORMATION RATIONALITY • The virtues of recall • Heuristics • When to pay attention • Maybe democracy isn’t doomed after all!
AND FINALLY… IS PUBLIC OPINION MEANINGFUL? Do you buy into the “low information rationality” arguments?