Government » American Politics of Public Opinion » The Effects of Public Opinion

Summary and Main Ideas


Public opinion polls have some effect on politics, most strongly during election season. Candidates who do well in polls receive more media coverage and campaign donations than candidates who fare poorly. The effect of polling on government institutions is less clear. Presidents sometimes consider polls when making decisions, especially if the polls reflect high approval. A president who has an electoral mandate can use that high public approval rating to push policies through Congress. Congress is likely to be aware of public opinion on issues. Representatives must continually raise campaign donations for bi-yearly elections. For this reason, they must keep their constituents and donors happy. Representatives are also likely to change their voting behavior if public opinion changes. Senators have a longer span between elections, which gives them time to make decisions independent of opinion and then make amends with their constituents. Changes in public opinion do not affect senators’ votes, but they do cause senators to lose reelection. It is less clear whether Supreme Court justices rule in ways that maintain the integrity of the branch or that keep step with the majority opinion of the public, but public approval of the court can change after high-profile decisions.

Practice Questions

  1. Why would House of Representative members be more likely than the president to follow public opinion?
  2. How do the media use public opinion polls during election season?
  3. Why is diffuse support important to maintaining a stable democracy? What happens when a government does not have diffuse support?
  4. What are the ways the media socialize a person?
  5. Is public opinion generally clear, providing broad signals to elected leaders about what needs to be done? Why or why not?
  6. When should political leaders not follow public opinion, and why?
  7. Why should a poll be scientific rather than informal?
  8. What heuristics, or cues, do voters use to pick a presidential candidate? Are these a good way to pick a president?

Sample Answer:

Representatives run for election every two years and must constantly raise campaign money. They abide by public opinion because do not have time to explain their actions or mend fences before each election.


bandwagon effect: increased media coverage of candidates who poll high

favorability poll: a public opinion poll that measures a public’s positive feelings about a candidate or politician

horserace coverage: day-to-day media coverage of candidate performance in the election

theory of delegate representation: a theory that assumes the politician is in office to be the voice of the people and to vote only as the people want

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