ch.11 - What is Public Opinion? Public opinion is 'what the...

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Chapter 11 Public Opinion and Political Socialization What is Public Opinion? Public opinion is 'what the people think about an issue or set of issues at any given point in time,' and opinions are normally measured by opinion polls. Polls are interviews or surveys of a sample of citizens (it is too expensive and time-consuming to ask everyone!) used to estimate how the public feels about an issue or set of issues. Okay. Seems straightforward but I see several problems just in the definitions. Let's see how many problems we can discover here. First, the phrase 'at any given point in time' implies that opinions change over time. Second, we are assuming that people know what they think and that polls measure those thoughts. Is that a fair assumption? Sampling could also be problematic. How can a subset of the population represent the views of everyone? We are going to use polls to 'estimate' public opinion hmmm. And those are just a few of the problems that I can think of. In this lecture, we will address these problems and the nature of public opinion and polling, as well as the uses of polls and whether those uses are in the public good or whether polls are a serious problem for democracy. What were some Early Efforts to Influence and Measure Public Opinion? Public opinion polling as we know it today developed in the 1930s. Pollsters used scientific methods to measure attitudes. Methods of gathering and analyzing data improved over the years, and survey data began to play an important role in politics and social life. How did Early Election Forecasting and Polling Matures work? As early as 1824, newspapers have tried to predict election winners using polls. In 1883, the Boston Globe used exit polls to try to predict winners. And in 1916, Literary Digest mailed survey postcards to potential voters in an attempt to predict the outcome. From 1920 to 1932, they predicted every presidential election correctly. Literary Digest used straw polls that are now seen as highly problematic. They lucked out by correctly predicting four elections, but their luck ran out in 1936 when they predicted that Alf Landon would beat FDR. FDR won in a landslide taking all but two states. What Went Wrong? Straw polls simply ask as many people as possible a given set of questions. They do not choose a sample in a random and scientific manner so that the sample will represent the population. Literary Digest made several important errors: 1) they sampled from telephone directories and car ownership records, thus oversampling upper and middle class people and those with Republican sympathies; 2) they mailed their questionnaires in early September and opinion changed before the November elections; and 3) they committed the sin of self-selection. Only highly motivated people returned the survey, so the survey oversampled better educated, politically interested, and wealthier people, again more Republicans. George Gallup, however, successfully predicted the 1936 election. His company, the Gallup Corporation,
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ch.11 - What is Public Opinion? Public opinion is 'what the...

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