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Introduction to Political Science

5.6 Why Is Public Opinion Important?

Introduction to Political Science5.6 Why Is Public Opinion Important?

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the need for public opinion polling.
  • Analyze the way public opinion is used vis-à-vis policy making and in politics.
  • Discuss the role of public opinion in a globalized world.

Despite the potential difficulty of obtaining poll results that accurately reflect the views of the people, polls remain an important component of participatory democracy.

The Declaration of Independence, which laid the framework for American democracy, states that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed” (emphasis added). If the people’s will creates the foundation for any representative government, then public opinion polling acts as the instrument by which the people are heard and consent is granted. Elections are the people’s recourse when the government ignores their wishes. But is there evidence that public opinion influences government policy? Studies by several researchers, including Northwestern University Professor Benjamin I. Page and Columbia University Professor Robert Y. Shapiro (1983),137 University of Washington Professor Paul Burstein (2003),138 and Vanderbilt University Professor Larry Bartels (1991),139 support this assertion. In a New York Times opinion piece, University of North Carolina Professor James Stinson writes, “When public opinion changes, demanding for example more or less government, government responds in the demanded direction. And it does so quickly.”140 One need not look far to see the simple relationship between public opinion and policy outcomes: President Barack Obama was elected by a public that overwhelmingly agreed that the economy, jobs, and health care were their top priorities.141 As such, his policy agenda reflected these concerns. At the top of his list was an economic stimulus package and, of course, the Affordable Care Act. In a way, we can understand public opinion and its influence on policy as a chicken-and-egg relationship: the public alerts elected officials of their preferences, and these officials then try to sell their solutions to the public as the best course of action. This relationship further underscores the importance of public opinion in our democratic process. Polls allow voters to assess choices and, in the most idealistic sense, provoke people to think about issues and alternatives. In this way, the very acts of polling and being polled are also important parts of the democratic process and encourage people to become informed and aware.

Public opinion also plays a crucial role in our globalized world. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, political psychologist Steven Kull of explained, “If policy practitioners want to promote international cooperation, they can pretty much see public opinion as a kind of ally in this process—not in every case, of course, but this is a tendency on that side.”142 In simpler terms, another reason it is important for Americans to understand global public opinion is that it gives us the ability to view the world and ourselves from a different perspective.

Show Me the Data

A table shows what percentage of respondents in Germany, France, and the UK had confidence in the US president to do the right thing regarding world affairs from 2001 to Fall 2020. Respondents generally trusted Obama and did not trust Trump. The table highlights the 46-69% increase in trust when respondents were asked about President-Elect Biden in Fall 2020.
Figure 5.13 This table makes it possible to compare the results of opinion polls of French, German, and UK citizens regarding the likelihood that recent American presidents would “do the right thing” in world affairs. (source: Pew Research Center Fall 2020 Global Attitudes Survey. Q28.)

For example, the graph in Figure 5.13 illustrates how Britain, France, and Germany viewed recent US presidents in fall 2020 and how much confidence they had in the incoming Biden administration. Understanding how people in other countries view the United States is important “because popular sentiments and resentments constrain what a government (even in a not-particularly-democratic nation) can do.”143 In this way, understanding public sentiment is not only important within countries; it is vital when working across nations. Public opinion is crucial for elected officials to gauge public sentiment and understand how to engage in diplomacy because “US leaders’ credibility in the eyes of foreign publics is critical in shaping attitudes toward US foreign policy.”144 Public opinion is thus vital for understanding not only how the public views its own government but also how the US government engages with other countries.

If public opinion works to legitimize governments, and if we are reliant on sound polling practices in order to gauge public sentiment, we must care about the future of public opinion polling as an industry. As an article in Atlantic points out, “Public-opinion polling was one of the last ways we had to understand what other Americans actually believe. If polling doesn’t work, then we are flying blind.”145

Despite the inherent and explicit importance of public opinion, the practice and science of polling faces new challenges. In the 2016 presidential election, an overwhelming number of pollsters inaccurately predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency over Donald Trump. Again in 2020, the polls overstated the margin by which Joe Biden would take the White House. If polling is subject to scientific rigor, how did this happen? Some attributed the inaccuracy of the polls to an underweighting of voters without college degrees, who turned out in great numbers to propel Donald Trump to the presidency, and an overexuberance of Biden supporters to respond to polls, respectively. Other explanations included the fact that large swaths of undecided voters did not decide on their vote until the last minute, particularly in 2016.146 Accuracy in polling is increasingly hampered by modern-day facts, including the decreasing likelihoods that people will own a landline, be at home during the day to answer pollsters, or respond to polls in general due to lowering levels of public trust. Another suggestion is that those people who actually respond to polls are not representative of the population in general and that their responses skew the accuracy of polls in a way that has yet to be addressed through advanced polling techniques.147 Despite these rational explanations, the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections show that while both state and national polls face challenges in portraying public sentiment accurately, the importance of valid opinion polls is self-evident. As Vanderbilt University Professor Joshua Clinton explains, while elections can tell us who wins, polls are the best tools available to tell us why, underscoring yet another facet of the importance of polls—their explanatory power.148

While reaching the electorate has undoubtedly become more difficult, the importance of polling within a democracy remains. Sam Wang, neuroscience Professor at Princeton University and cofounder of the blog Princeton Election Consortium, explains that “polling is critically important because it is a way by which we can measure public sentiment more rigorously than any other method.”149 As the industry continues to reflect and evolve in response to changes in technology and the electorate, it is important for us to remember the value of polls, understand how they are conducted, and participate fully and honestly when called upon to do so. Editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll Frank Newport provides a succinct explanation for the importance of public opinion polling: “Humans live with and around other people. Acquiring a knowledge of these people is an important way in which humans manage to survive, get along, and come together to accomplish common goals.”150

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