People's opinions on issues are influenced by a variety of factors in their lives, including their background, upbringing, and experience. Policy makers often try to identify the views of their constituents on issues because knowing them is an invaluable tool in a representative democracy. Policy makers get a better idea of what people want them to do when those people express their opinions on policy issues, which they can do by a range of activities, from writing government officials to taking part in demonstrations. There are also many ways to collect public opinion, including town halls, focus groups, and polling. Polls are an essential tool to public officials, who use them to assess where the public as a whole and specific demographic groups stand on issues and on their own job performance. The way polls are designed can sometimes determine their quality, with random sampling and neutrally constructed questions providing the most reliable results.
At A Glance
- Public opinion in a democracy can influence government actions and priorities—and the views and actions of individual politicians.
- People can express their opinions through polls, letter writing, e-mail and social media messages and responses, and participation in town halls and other public events such as demonstrations or marches.
- A person's political opinions are affected by gender, race, ethnicity, age, family, religion, education, career, region, social groups, the media, and major national events.
- Formal polls require carefully sampling a representative segment of the desired population to produce a statistically meaningful measure of public opinion on issues and public individuals. Each poll has a margin of error that suggests how accurately its results reflect the population as a whole.
Polls must be carefully designed to be useful. The method used to contact respondents, the timing of the poll, the content and structure of questions, and the problem of inaccurate responses can all cloud the validity of poll results.
- Political candidates, officeholders, political parties, news organizations, and polling organizations all use polls and focus groups to identify voters' perception of key issues and office holders or candidates. Analysts use demographic poll data such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity to analyze poll results.