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4.5 Measuring Public Opinion

11 min readfebruary 11, 2023

I

Isabela Padilha Vilela

VladimirGenkovski

VladimirGenkovski


AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
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Definition of Public Opinion 

Public opinion is defined through surveys that indicate the preferences of a certain population in regard to a specific issue. By measuring public opinion, it is possible to know the number of people (or percentage) in a population that hold certain opinions about the issue at hand or even those that do not hold any opinions! 💬
These polls and surveys can measure support and dissent on several different issues, such as the amount of support a candidate for the presidency has, or the opinions on a recently implemented public policy. They are essential to maintain a democratic form of government.

Types of Poll

Polls have played a significant role in shaping public opinion in the United States. They serve as a barometer of the public's views and attitudes on various issues and provide insight into the political landscape. From presidential elections to hot-button social and political issues, polls can sway public opinion and drive the national conversation. With the rise of technology and the internet, polls have become increasingly accessible and ubiquitous today. However, as the use of polls continues to grow, so too do questions about their accuracy and reliability. This section will examine the impact of polls on public opinion in the United States.
1. Opinion polls gather information about individuals' attitudes and views on various issues, providing insight into the political landscape and the public's opinions on specific topics.
One of the ways in which opinion polls shape public opinion is by presenting a specific point of view as the majority opinion. When polls consistently show a particular viewpoint on an issue, it can make it seem like that perspective is more widely held than it actually is. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people with different views may feel pressured to conform to the perceived majority. This can also lead to a situation where those in power feel that their actions are justified by the supposed majority opinion.
Another way in which opinion polls shape public opinion is through the media's coverage of poll results. The media often reports on the results of opinion polls, especially in the lead-up to elections. This reporting can help to establish the narrative around an issue, leading the public to view specific candidates or viewpoints in a certain way. The media can also be selective in the polls it reports on, focusing on polls that support its own biases and ignoring those that do not. This can further influence public opinion and skew the perception of the public's views.
Opinion polls are often used to track the popularity of presidential candidates, and the results can significantly influence public opinion. For example, if a poll consistently shows a particular candidate with a substantial lead, it can give the impression that the candidate is more likely to win, which can impact voter behavior and, ultimately, the outcome of the election. Polls can also shape public opinion on hot-button social and political issues, such as gun control, immigration, and healthcare. For example, a poll showing that most Americans support stricter gun control laws can increase public pressure on lawmakers to pass such laws.
2. Benchmark or tracking polls are a type of opinion poll that is conducted regularly to measure public opinion on various issues over time. These polls have become a standard tool for shaping public opinion and influencing policy decisions in the United States.
First, it is essential to note that benchmark/tracking polls provide valuable information about the views and attitudes of the American public. By tracking public opinion over time, these polls can help to provide insight into how attitudes are changing on specific issues. This information can be used by politicians and policymakers to make informed decisions that reflect the public's views. Second, benchmark/tracking polls can also influence public opinion by presenting a particular viewpoint as the majority opinion. For example, if a poll consistently shows that most Americans support a particular policy, it can increase public pressure on lawmakers to adopt it. The media's coverage of these polls can also impact public opinion, as the media may choose to focus on polls that support its own biases and ignore those that do not. Third, benchmark/tracking polls can be useful for political campaigns and candidates, as they provide valuable information about the views of the electorate. Campaigns can use this information to determine their campaign strategies and tailor their messages to appeal to voters. The results of these polls can also shape the media's coverage of political campaigns and impact the outcome of elections.

Benchmark/tracking polls can be used by political campaigns to determine the views of the electorate and shape their campaign strategies. For example, a poll may show that most voters in a specific state support a particular policy. The political campaign can use this information to tailor their message to appeal to these voters and increase their chances of winning the election. Policymakers can use the results of benchmark/tracking polls to understand the public's views on specific issues. For example, if a poll shows that most Americans support a particular policy, lawmakers may be more likely to adopt it, as they believe it reflects the views of their constituents.
3. Entrance/exit polls are a type of opinion poll that is conducted during elections to measure the opinions and attitudes of voters.
First, entrance/exit polls provide valuable information about voters' views and can help explain an election's results. By asking voters about their opinions on various issues and which candidate they voted for, entrance/exit polls can provide insight into the factors that influence the outcome of an election. This information can be used to understand the American electorate's views and make informed decisions about future elections. Second, entrance/exit polls can also impact public opinion by shaping the media's coverage of an election. For example, if the results of an entrance/exit poll indicate that a particular candidate has won an election, the media may focus its coverage on that candidate, potentially influencing public opinion in their favor. Third, entrance/exit polls can be used by political campaigns and candidates to determine the views of voters and tailor their messages accordingly. By understanding the views and attitudes of voters, campaigns can craft messages that appeal to their constituents and increase their chances of winning an election.
On Election Day, entrance/exit polls play a crucial role in shaping public opinion in the United States. The results of these polls can significantly impact the public's perception of the election and the race's outcome. They provide early indications of the outcome of an election. These polls are conducted as soon as voting ends and are based on surveys of voters as they leave polling places. The results of these polls can provide a snapshot of the views and opinions of voters and give the public a sense of which candidate is winning or losing. This information can impact public opinion and shape the media's election coverage. For example, if an entrance/exit poll indicates that a particular candidate is leading, the media may focus its coverage on that candidate, potentially shaping public opinion in their favor.
Entrance/exit polls also shape media narratives as the media often uses their results to provide context and analysis of the election. For example, if the results of an entrance/exit poll indicate that a particular candidate is winning, the media may focus its coverage on that candidate, potentially shaping public opinion in their favor. The media can also use the results of entrance/exit polls to provide a more comprehensive picture of the election and help the public understand the views and opinions of voters. For example, if an entrance/exit poll indicates that a significant percentage of voters are concerned about a particular issue, the media may focus its coverage on that issue, potentially shaping public opinion on the issue.
Entrance/exit polls can also influence voter behavior by providing information about the views and opinions of other voters. For example, if an entrance/exit poll shows that a particular candidate is leading in a specific state, it may encourage more voters to vote for that candidate. This can impact the outcome of the election and shape public opinion. For example, if a large number of voters in a state change their minds and vote for the candidate who is leading in an entrance/exit poll, it may cause public opinion to shift in that candidate's favor.

Sampling Methods

Public opinion in the United States can be influenced by various factors, including sampling techniques, identification of respondents, mass surveys, and focus groups.
1. Sampling techniques: There are various sampling techniques used in public opinion research, including random sampling, stratified sampling, cluster sampling, and quota sampling. Random sampling is a technique in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected for the sample. Stratified sampling involves dividing the population into subgroups (strata) and selecting a random sample from each stratum. Cluster sampling involves dividing the population into groups (clusters) and selecting a random sample of clusters, with all individuals in the selected clusters included in the sample. Quota sampling involves selecting a sample so that the proportions of specific characteristics in the sample match those in the population.
2. Identification of respondents: The method used to identify respondents can significantly impact the results of a public opinion survey. For example, if a survey is conducted in person, it may not accurately reflect the opinions of individuals who are not at home, while a survey conducted over the phone may not accurately reflect the opinions of individuals who do not have a phone or do not answer calls from unknown numbers. Online surveys may not accurately reflect the opinions of individuals who do not have internet access or are uncomfortable responding to online surveys.
3. Mass surveys: Mass surveys, also known as omnibus surveys, are designed to gather data on a wide range of topics in a quick and inexpensive manner. While these surveys can provide valuable insights into public opinion, they may not always provide a detailed and accurate picture of public opinion on a specific issue. For example, a mass survey may only include a few questions on a specific issue, and the questions may not be designed to capture the complexity of the issue. Additionally, the mass survey sample may not represent the population being studied, which can lead to biased results.
4. Focus groups: Focus groups are small, in-person groups of individuals who are selected to participate in a discussion about a specific topic. These groups allow individuals to share their opinions and engage in a dialogue with others, which can provide valuable insights into public opinion. However, focus groups are not representative of the population as a whole, and the results of a focus group may not accurately reflect the opinions of individuals who are not part of the focus group. Additionally, the dynamics of the focus group can influence the opinions expressed by the participants.
5. Sampling error: Sampling error occurs when a sample is not representative of the population being studied. This can result in a biased understanding of public opinion. Sampling error is determined by the sample size, the method used to select the sample, and the characteristics of the population being studied. For example, if a small sample is selected using a method that does not accurately reflect the characteristics of the population, the results of the survey may not accurately reflect the opinions of the population. Additionally, if a sample is not representative of the population, the survey results may not generalize to the population as a whole.

Type and Format of Questions

The type and format of questions used in a public opinion survey can greatly influence the survey results and, therefore, our understanding of public opinion in the United States.
1. Question type: The type of questions used in a public opinion survey can greatly impact the survey results. Two main types of questions are used in public opinion research: closed-ended and open-ended.
Closed-ended questions are questions that offer a limited number of response options, such as multiple-choice or Likert-scale questions. These types of questions are quick and easy to administer and can provide a clear picture of public opinion on a specific issue. However, they may not accurately reflect the complexity of individuals' opinions, as they may not capture the full range of opinions on a topic.
Open-ended questions are questions that allow individuals to provide a written response, rather than selecting from a set of predefined options. These types of questions can provide a more detailed and nuanced understanding of individuals' opinions, as they allow individuals to express their opinions in their own words. However, open-ended questions are more time-consuming to analyze, and the results may be more difficult to interpret and generalize to the population as a whole.
2. Question Format: The format of questions used in a public opinion survey can also impact the survey results. It is important for questions to be clearly worded, unbiased, and neutral in order to accurately reflect the opinions of the population being studied.
For example, questions that are worded in a biased or leading manner can influence the responses of individuals and may not accurately reflect their true opinions. For example, a question that asks, "Do you support the government's proposal to increase taxes?" may influence individuals to respond in a certain way, while a neutral question, such as, "What are your thoughts on the government's proposal to increase taxes?" may provide a more accurate reflection of individuals' opinions.
Additionally, questions that are too lengthy or complex may confuse or discourage individuals from responding accurately. Simple, concise, and clearly worded questions are more likely to elicit accurate and meaningful responses.
3. Order of questions: The order in which questions are asked in a public opinion survey can also influence the survey results. It is important to consider the order in which questions are asked in order to minimize bias and ensure accurate results.
For example, if a survey starts with a question that is highly sensitive or controversial question, it may impact the responses to subsequent questions. In order to minimize this type of bias, it is best to start with more neutral or background questions and progress to more sensitive or controversial topics later in the survey.
Additionally, if a survey ends with a question that is important to the researchers, individuals may be more likely to respond thoughtfully and accurately. For example, if the last question in a survey asks about individuals' overall opinions on a specific issue, individuals may be more likely to provide an accurate and thoughtful response, as they have had the opportunity to consider the issue throughout the survey.
4. Response options: The response options offered in a public opinion survey can also impact the survey results. It is important to ensure that the response options accurately reflect the range of opinions on a topic and are easily understood by individuals.
For example, if the response options are limited or do not accurately reflect the range of opinions on a topic, individuals may be unable to provide an accurate response. Additionally, if the response options are too numerous or complex, individuals may become confused or discouraged from providing a response.

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