Public Opinion and policy

In Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley interpret public opinion as an individual’s beliefs and preferences in regards to all governmental matters and policies.(424) These individual ideas collectively are viewed as the overall populations opinions summarized and can be reflected by a poll. By collecting these opinions through the polling process, lawmakers are likely to take these opinions into consideration when creating and/or regulating a policy. In 1824 The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian newspaper conducted one such poll where the readers were asked to return a postcard with their opinion about the presidential candidates; Andrew Jackson or John Quincy Adams. Jackson won the poll as well as the eventual election.(Franklin) This style of opinion polling has increased over the years and evolved into a more refined and accurate representation of the public. For instance, instead of submitting an untraceable, anonymous postcard, people are instead asked to submit a survey and are required to submit some personal information, which will remain anonymous, in order to prevent the chance of someone submitting more than one survey.

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Due to the availability of the telephones and the internet, we are able to survey a larger and more diverse group of citizens which will allow for more accurate results. As voters, we are able to have some control over who represents our opinions as well as who we believe will make decisions that are truly for the betterment of the people and society. By understanding the five linkage models established by Norman Luttbeg (Robert & Kent, 20-21) we are able to see how public opinion can sway the formulation of a public policy.

1. The Rational-Activist Model assumes that all voting citizens are level-headed, informed, involved and politically active individuals. This model presents the idea that if representatives do not make decisions to satisfy the demands of the people, then the people will replace that representative. This model is the least likely to be apparent since the majority of the public does not keep close tabs on political actions. The largest flaw with this model is that we are assuming all voters are educated and rational about a particular issue and/or candidate.

2. The Political Parties Model takes place when an individual has an overall agreement with the ideals of an individual party. Citizens identify with a party whose overall attitude and beliefs mesh with their own. A major flaw within this model is the idea that representatives feel pressured to take actions that are for the betterment of the party but not always for the individual citizen.

3. The Interest Groups Model establishes that the public can express their opinions to lawmakers by forming a group who will advocate for a collective cause. The groups place pressure on the lawmakers and parties electorally by rallying behind those that will publicly promote them. As well as monetarily by donating funds to those individuals and/or parties. By understanding this particular model we are able to see the likelihood of one group being more represented than another in society. This would create strife among the people as the group who is the least wealthy would be more likely to be underrepresented even though that group could contain a more accurate representation of the overall public opinion.

4. The Delegate Model maintains that a representative is elected based on the candidates values but not necessarily their stance on the issues. This model varies from the Rational Activist model in that it places more responsibility on the candidate to follow the opinions of the constituency or face being replaced and not place the responsibility on the public to educate themselves. While the Delegate Model and the Rational Activist Model are very similar the key difference is in noting that this model places more pressure on a candidate to follow their constituency’s ideas even if the candidate believes that other options would be in the best interest of the constituents.

5. The Sharing Model speaks on the idea that a representative will act on their own belief that may not be in complete alignment with their constituency but due to the unlikelihood that the lawmaker will go directly against their constituency they are still placing public opinion in their favor. This model overwhelmingly displays that a representatives values and character may come more into consideration with a voter than that representatives stance on a particular issue. (WK 2008) When we say population we are referring to a large mass of people that represent the summation of a geographical area. (Robert & Kent, 28) Population can be that of a country, state, city or even a university leading to extremely large groups of people that would take too much time to poll individually.

Within any given population we take samples, collect data from a subdivision of a population in an effort to estimate the overall opinions of the collective group. Within these subsets of populations the results may not be a completely accurate reflection of the overall population. Religion, race and income are factors that can greatly sway the outcome but most instances are unintentional. (US History) A biased sample is where there has been a methodical selection of the participants in an effort to achieve a planned outcome. An unintentional occurrence might take place with a telephone sampling. The University of Texas at Austin elaborated on this bias in regards to telephone sampling. For instance, if the amount of people who are without phones, or those who simply don’t answer the phone are not considered this can greatly skew the results. Truly random samplings are where the participants are participating solely due to chance and where every varying subset of citizens has an equal chance to be selected. (Rosalee & Zoe, 29-30) A sample will very rarely get the exact percentages as it is highly likely that they will miss a group of people since the entire population is not participating and we are taking smaller groups to represent the entirety.

The confidence level is a mathematical probability measure that tells us how reliable our data is in terms of accuracy. We keep this probability to a manageable number by keeping the number of individuals polled low. Polls are kept to less than 1,000 respondents due to the margin of error as well as the fact that the accuracy improves only marginally with larger samples. (Robert & Kent 30) The 1936 poll conducted by Literacy Digest proclaimed that the Republican candidate was likely to be the overwhelming winner of the Presidential election when in actuality it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt that won the bid for President. Seeing as how this poll was conducted at a time where the majority of people were dealing with the aftermath of the stock market crash and the subsequent great depression we can infer that the majority of the people polled were people who had the funds to subscribe to a weekly magazine, owned a telephone and possibly an automobile. The Republican candidate was projected to be the winner most likely due to the affluent Republican participants of the survey. During this same election George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion did project the winner to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which placed the Gallup poll into the spotlight. It is believed that the Gallup poll was able to accurately predict the outcome due to their preference of using a smaller and more diverse sample. (Polling the Nations)

Ideologies are the beliefs of an individual about the various social, cultural, political and economic operations within a society. An individual forms opinions based on their beliefs, life experience, genetics and many factors that as a whole make up their political ideology. (Rosalee & Zoe, p62) The liberal ideology is based on the beliefs that government intervention in economic matters, as well as a basic belief in the equality of the people. While a conservatives ideology is based on the beliefs that there should be minimal government intervention in all matters, as well as an emphasis on tradition and individual responsibility. (Robert & Kent, p72-73)

There are five main influences that will affect how a person develops their ideology; family, gender, religion, ethnicity, and/or region. All of these influences will combine, influencing the opinions and beliefs of the citizen. Since a person develops opinions based on the experiences and knowledge they have developed over the course of their lives, there can be instances where a person can completely flip-flop on their original ideals as time progresses and while this is highly unlikely it is still possible.( Pelin, Erik, Jackie…) For instance, a person who grew up in an affluential conservative household may find as they get older and more independent that their view of the world is vastly different from that of their families. This can also lead to strife amongst families in instances where there is an obvious divide on the ideals. A person who is witness to the exchange of ideas between the opposing sides is likely to be influenced by the attitudes and opinions of the people while also comparing those individuals’ ideals to their behaviors, character, and reliability.

Conservatives and Liberals have very different ideological standpoints and many Americans tend to lean towards one or the other in regards to their personal beliefs toward public policy making and governing styles. However, it has been discovered that the majority of the present American public do not identify themselves as adhering to one strict ideology but instead place themselves somewhere in the middle. (Robert & Kent, p83) Conservatives have the highest percentage of individuals who are strict ideologues. (Gallup-a) But there are many individuals from either side that can be uncompromising in their ideals and take their truth as the one and only truth.

In understanding a person’s chosen ideology we are faced with an interesting fact; that while most people tend to identify themselves as conservative, the overall majority of the public tends to vote more liberally. (John, 2014) Conservatives are ideologically defined by their strict adherence to traditional values and practices as well as their support for little to no governmental regulation and their emphasis on individual citizens taking personal responsibility. Liberals are alternatively defined by their belief that the government should be active in the regulation of the people in order to protect the citizens from the possibility of unequal and discriminatory actions. (Rosalee & Zoe, p134) Liberals are also recognized by their beliefs in the overall equality of citizens, protection of liberties and progressive thinking that is based on the idea that there is overall an essential goodness to the mass populous. While there are vast differences between these opposing sides, it is possible to see how a person may agree with a conservative view of government while simultaneously believing in the humanist attributes of the liberal view.

Individuals will usually develop an allegiance to a particular party (typically Democrat or Republican, though many other political parties have emerged), or will categorize themselves as being an independent of a specific party affiliation. An individual’s party identification gives us a better idea on how that person will vote in elections as people tend to follow their elected party’s specific views on an issue as well as electorally support a political leader of the party, but that is not always the case. Party identification has been described as being a psychological identification, or being the way an individual has come to their current attitudes towards public policy by way of their individual life experience, that will continue to influence how new information is processed. (Thomas & Geoffrey)

If we were to question an individual’s likelihood to remain a steady voter for one particular party, the Michigan Model theory will give us such a theory to go on as this model emphasizes an individual’s party attachment is predominately stable. One noticeable flaw in this theory is if a party were to change their stance on an issue that overwhelmingly goes against the beliefs or ideals of the individual, the voter may then vote against the party if not possibly switch parties altogether. But this is unlikely as the voter is more likely to respond to the performances of their elected representatives than to their ideologies alone. (Harold, David, Marianne & Paul)

By looking at the present day Republican Party we are able to see they are typically very conservative in their views, which may be why more and more religious people vote in accordance with this party. The Republican party favors towards older, affluent and white males while the Democratic party tends to be more diverse. The Democratic Party contains a very diverse group of people and is weighted in the areas of women, race and sexual orientation. (Gallup-b) The majority of younger Americans also identifies with the Democratic Party. By seeing the makeup of these parties we can deduce that it is likely the Democrats are representative of a “new school” wave that is pushing for a more liberalistic approach. (Adam, 2014)

The presidential approval rating is one of the main political opinion polls taken and focused on by the media. This ranking shows whether the public generally approves or disapproves of the job performance of the person holding America’s highest office. In studying the inconsistent falls and climbs of the approval rating there have been certain trends believed to be the cause of some high points during a presidential term. (Rosalee & Zoe, 109) The honeymoon effect is the first trend that will take place during the days after a President takes office. This effect refers to the initial phase after the swearing in of the president into the office. Since this man is entering office with a clean sheet, and has recently come off of an approval high as evidenced by his election, people are more likely to be optimistic towards actions taken by the president. Eventually there will come a time where a problem is encountered and the president’s plan of action will no doubtedly upset a cluster of people. After this point there can be varying reasons for the day-to-day rising and falling of the approval rating. (Robert & Kent, 120)

In some instances a presidents rating can climb when the nation has been confronted with a foreign event that involves America and possibly a crisis for the American people. This idea is referred to as the rally round the flag effect. Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin write in American Public Opinion (121) this effect is likely to occur due to the desire of the American people to feel united behind a leader. One of the most accurate examples of this would be the attitude of the American people after the attacks that took place on 9/11 and the subsequent skyrocketing in the approval ratings for President George W. Bush. Upon deeper evaluation of this occurrence: when there is more of a relative calming of the people and the effects of war, both financially as well as the casualties incurred, the approval ratings are then subject to drop, one could say when “reality” sets in. (Rosalee & Zoe, 111)

The final source for the possible explanations behind drastic increases and decreases in a presidential approval rating is the state of the economy. An economy that is poorly performing will likely result in low approval ratings for the President and a prosperous economy to increase the approval rating. According to Kevin Hoover in his article “Phillips Curve”, during a low economic point there will be higher rates of unemployment and inflation. These two factors can have a substantial and negative impact on an individual’s livelihood. President Obama was elected during a time of economic strife due to many factors including a housing market crash as well as the weighing cost of the “War on Terror”. Even though Obama was not in the Presidential office during the onset of the war, nor was he to blame for the inevitable housing market crash, his approval rating suffered due to the onset of these events aftereffects.

Robert S. Erikson and Kent L. Tedin, American Public Opinion, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011 Rosalee A. Clawson and Zoe M. Oxley, Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice. Washington D.C., 2013 The University of Texas at Austin. “Biased Sampling and Extrapolation.” Last modified August 28, 2012. Pelin Kesebir, Erik Phillips, Jackie Anson, Tom Pyszczynski, Matt Motyl, “Ideological Consistency across the Political Spectrum: Liberals are More Consistent but Conservatives Become More Consistent When Coping with Existential Threat” (February 11, 2013).

John Sides, “Why Most Conservatives are Secretly Liberals,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2014. Gallup-a. “Conservatives Remain the Largest Ideological Group in U.S.” Last modified January 12, 2012. Gallup-b. “Democrats Racially Diverse; Republicans Mostly White” Last modified February 8, 2013 US History. “American Political Attitudes and Participation: What Factors Shape Political Attitudes?” Last modified January, 2013.
Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson, “Pathways to Ideology in American Politics: the Operational-Symbolic “Paradox” Revisited” Harold D. Clarke, David Sanders, Marianne C. Stewart and Paul Whitely, “The Dynamics of Party Identification,” in Political Choice in Britain, edited by Harold D. Clarke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 185-186.

Franklin & Marshall College. “The First Political Poll.” Last modified June 18, 2002. WK, Ph.D. Candidate, “The Role of Salience on the Relationship between Public Policy and Public Opinion” (Paper prepared for DC AAPOR Student Paper Competition, December 12, 2008)

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