Measuring Public Opinion

Recall that public opinion is an expression of the general population’s thoughts on a particular issue. It represents a common or popular opinion on a particular issue, such as public health or the economy.

Measurement of Public Opinion

One of the earliest expressions of public opinion was rebellion. Peasant rebellions have occurred throughout history. When the king saw his subjects in open rebellion, it was a pretty clear sign that the public’s support for his government was eroding. Unpaid taxes was another clue; when rulers saw their tax receipts dwindle and heard reports of tax collectors being killed, they knew that public opinion was turning against them.

For centuries rulers have established secret police forces to find out which people oppose the government and to eliminate them. Secret police have, among other things, acted as monitors of public opinion. Fortunately, not all governments need to hire secret police or wait for peasant rebellions to learn about public opinion. Democratic governments, especially, have much better procedures to learn about public opinion and measure it. Let’s look at some of the methods for measuring public opinion:

1. Public Opinion Polls

There are a few ways public opinion is measured. One of the main ways is through public opinion polls. These are surveys commissioned by various groups in order to determine people’s thoughts on particular matters. Generally, a poll is initiated when someone wants a political question answered, like John’s question about the watering restrictions. He needs to know how many people in his district support the idea. He needs to conduct a poll. 

Opinion polls involve the use of a certain representative number of people and asking them questions on a particular issue. Their responses are then analyzed to arrive at what percentage of people are saying what on a particular issue. This method is used to measure the opinion of the people on any policy of government or any other matter of national importance.

2. Elections

The most common way for a democratic government to learn about public opinion is through elections. Elections are built into the system, at regular intervals in the United States and at irregular intervals in other democratic countries. They are important because they determine who staffs the government, and they are also one way for the public to express its feelings about politics. But they are not a particularly precise method for ascertaining public opinion.

Elections are also imperfect measures of public opinion because they reflect only the opinions of those who voted. Certainly, in societies in which all adults have the right to vote, elections can reflect the various views of all the people. But in practice, not everyone votes—especially in United States, where only about half the eligible voters participate in presidential elections, and even fewer do so in other elections. Therefore, elections tend to reflect the views of those who vote, who are not necessarily representative of the public.

3. Pressure Groups and Lobbying

It may seem unlikely that pressure groups would be valid measures of public opinion. They are remarkably unrepresentative of the public as a whole. The wealthy and the educated members of society are much more likely to be organized into interest groups and employ representatives. The poor and uneducated are much less able to speak to the government through lobbyists. Nevertheless, legislators, staffers, and other government personnel do pay attention to what interest groups say. They have good reason to do so.

Good lobbyists tend to be well informed about their issues concerning their employers, they have access to facts necessary to write laws, they understand the political process, and they are present when necessary to answer questions. While the public might be “for” lowering a tax, ordinary people would not understand how a tax could be lowered or how much it could be lowered. The lobbyists could.

4. The Media

Many government officials, and many regular citizens, look to the media to understand the views of the public. Media, such as television, newspapers, and magazines are important because of the news they choose and how they portray the issues. In other terms, they are important in determining the political agenda (what people in the government are thinking about) and in framing the issues (how the issues are being considered). 

5. Letters and Calls

People use letters and telephone calls to express their opinions to their elected representatives. While many of these letters and calls are about specific personal problems, such as lost Social Security checks, many of them are about contentious political issues. Politicians notice when their constituents write. A few letters from constituents may represent the opinions of thousands of other voters.

Again, letters are not a “fair” way to assess public opinion. Letter writer tend to be better educated and wealthier than average citizens. So the voices lawmakers hear in the calls and letters the receive from constituents tend to speak with higher class accents than most citizens.

6. Protests

In democratic governments as well as dictatorships, protests have served governments as indicators of citizens’ dissatisfaction with government policies. In the United States, especially in the last 40 years, protests have been a staple way of communicating with the government. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders pioneered very effective use of protests, matching them extremely well with the emerging medium of television. The goal of protest is to get the media, and by extension the public and government officials, to notice a problem they have been ignoring.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master a handling the media to magnify the impact of protests. King wanted his protest marches in the south to show the brutality of the Jim Crow, segregationist, political and legal system. He aimed his protests at the most visibly brutal Southern lawmen, such as Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma and Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama. By being brutalized on television, King and the other civil rights workers showed that the southern legal system needed physical coercion to main white supremacy. These protest marches were very successful; they turned the attention of the media—and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the Congress—to the southern oppression of African Americans and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Again, protests are not especially useful for determining what the public as a whole thinks. While protest seems to be a method that anybody, even the poorest people, could use, in fact, those citizens who are better educated and have higher incomes tend to protest more than others. Protest, like the other “informal” methods of ascertaining public opinion, is skewed toward the well-off segments of the public.

7. Recall

In some democratic jurisdictions, a non-performing member of parliament could withdrawn by those who voted into office and replaced by another person before the end of his/her term of office. This is done through a process called recall. This recall process is also another way in which public opinion is measured.

8. Referendum

A referendum can also be used to measure what people feel about an issue. The practice involves the referral of a particular issue to the citizens to decide through the exercise of their franchise. The amendment of some clauses in a constitutions necessarily need to go through a referendum. Whatever decision is expressed at the referendum reflects the opinion of the people.

9. Straw Polls

Straw polls are a compromise between formal and informal methodologies. Straw polls typically look like formal public opinion polls, but they are conducted with minimal concern for the validity of the results. Before the advent of statistically-based surveying in the 1930s, all polling was straw polling. Today, in a common type of straw polling, members of Congress mail questionnaires to their constituents to ascertain their opinions on the important issues of the day. Or they tally the letters and telephone calls—so many people on one side, and so many people on the other side.

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