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Chapter 6: Public Opinion, Political Socialization, and the Media

Public Opinion
• Aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs shared by some portion of the adult population
– No one public opinion; many different “publics”
– Key role in policymaking
• A source of power in dealing with other politicians
• Helps candidates identify issue concerns
– Policy leaders respond to changes in public opinion about 2/3 of the time
– Sets limits on government action through public pressure
• Consensus opinion – general agreement on an issue
• Divisive opinion – polarized between two quite different positions

Figure 6-1: Consensus Opinion

Figure 6-2:  Divisive Opinion

Qualities of Public Opinion

• Intensity – strength of a position
– intense opinions often generate public action
– intense minority can often win over a less intense majority
• Fluidity – extent to which public opinion changes over time
• Stability – extent to which public opinion remains constant
• Relevance – extent to which an issue is of concern
– issues become relevant when they are viewed as of direct concern to daily life
• Political knowledge – extent to which individuals are aware of an issue

Discussion Questions

• How much should public opinion influence government decisionmakers?
• Should policymakers ever ignore public opinion?
• Should policymakers simply “follow the polls”?

Measuring Public Opinion

• Opinion poll = a method of systematically questioning a small, selected sample of respondents who are deemed representative of the total population
• Simple random sample – each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected for the sample
– Most scientific; sample represents population’s diversity in demography and opinion
• Quota sample – less accurate; polling organizations predetermine the characteristics of the needed sample, and then find respondents with those characteristics to fill the slots
• Sampling error – difference between a sample’s results and the result if the entire population had been interviewed

Problems with Polls

• Polls are a “snapshot in time” of potentially shifting opinions
• Classic errors: presidential election polls in 1948 and 1980 (Dewey beating Truman; Carter beating Reagan)
• Sampling errors (e.g., biased samples, samples too small, etc.)
• Question wording/influence of interviewer
• Unscientific polls (Internet, phone-in, push polls)
• High non-response rates

Political Socialization

• Process by which individuals acquire political beliefs, attitudes, and opinions
• Agents/forces of political socialization…
– Family
– Education
– Peers
– Religion
– Economic Status/occupation/class
– Political Events
– Opinion Leaders
– Media/TV/Internet
– Demography/Age/Gender

Discussion Questions

• What agents of political socialization had/have the most important influence on your political opinions, beliefs, and attitudes?
• In what ways are political socialization agents working on you now?
• What influence has your college experience had on your political beliefs?

Effect of Family

• Most important agent of political socialization
– Link to other forces of socialization
• How does it work?…Communication and Receptivity
– Parents communicate preferences to children
– Children want to please parents and are receptive to their views
• Important for party identification
– Children generally follow in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to political party identification
• Class poll: How many of us have followed in our parents’ footsteps when it comes to party identification?

Party Identification from

Parent to Child

Effects of Education and Peers

• Education
– Learn patriotism, structure of government and how to form positions on issues
– The more education a person has, the more likely he or she will be interested in politics
• Peers
– Peer group = group whose members share common social characteristics
– Most likely to shape political opinions when peer group is politically active

Effects of Religion

• Traditional view was that religious groups transmit definite political preferences
– Roman Catholics --> more liberal
– Protestants --> more conservative
– Jews --> more liberal
• More recent trends suggest…
– Jews --> liberal socially and economically
– Non-religious --> very liberal socially; mixed economically
– Protestants and Catholics vary socially and economically
• Powerful predictors of social conservatism among Christians (varied on economic issues)
– Degree of religious commitment
– Conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist

Effects of Economic Status/Class

• Family income a strong predictor of liberalism or conservatism
• Lower income
– More likely to favor government action to benefit the poor or promote economic equality
– More likely to be socially conservative
– More likely to be Democrat
• Higher income
– More likely to oppose government intervention in the economy or support it only when it benefits business
– More likely to be socially liberal
– More likely to be Republican or Libertarian
• Socioeconomic status (SES) = best predictor of whether or not one participates in politics; an even better predictor as the activity becomes more demanding

Effects of Political Events

• Events can shape people’s political attitudes
• Generational effect = a long-lasting effect of events of a particular time on the political opinions of those who came of political age at that time
– Great Depression
– World War II
– Vietnam War
– 9/11?

Effects of Opinion Leaders and Media

• Opinion Leader = one who is able to influence the opinions of others because of position, expertise, or personality
– Leaders sometimes influence the opinions of others
• Media = channels of mass communication
– Newspapers, television, radio and the Internet strongly influence public opinion
– Sometimes shape opinion
– Oftentimes not what to think, but certainly what to think about, known as agenda setting

Demographic Effects

• Region
– South, Great Plains, and Rockies --> Republican
– West Coast and Northeast --> Democratic
• Residence (urban/suburban/rural)
– Big cities --> liberal and Democratic
– Small communities --> conservative and Republican
• Ethnicity
– African Americans -->more liberal
– Whites --> more conservative
• Gender
– Men more likely to vote for Republican presidential candidate
– Women more likely to vote for Democratic presidential candidate
– Gender Gap = difference between percentage of women who vote for a particular candidate and the percentage of men who vote for the candidate

Public Opinion and Political Process

• Public opinion influences policymakers and political process
– Source of power
– Identify key issues
– Shape campaigns
• Political culture = collection of beliefs and attitudes toward government and the political process held by a community or nation
– Symbols
– Shared beliefs
• liberty, equality, property
• Support for religion
• Community service and personal achievement
• Structure of government
– Provides environment of support (trust, legitimacy)
– Political trust = degree to which individuals express trust in the government and political institutions
– Standard for evaluation of performance

Public Opinion About Government

• Considerable ambivalence regarding governmental institutions
• Tend to rise and fall with attitudes toward general state of the nation
• Even though people may not have high levels of trust in institutions, we turn to government to solve major problems
• See Tables 6-1, 6-2, and 6-3

Table 6-1: Trends in Political Trust

Table 6-2:  Confidence in Institutions Trend

Public Opinion and Policymaking

• Public opinion important in policymaking
• Politicians not always guided by opinion polls
• Choices involving trade-offs have to be made
• Informed policy choice requires understanding of policy area and consequences of any given choice
• Politicians attempt to maximize the net benefits to his or her constituents while keeping within whatever the politician believes government can afford

Media and Politics

• Functions of the Media
– Entertainment
– Reporting the news
– Identifying public problems
• setting the public agenda = issues perceived by the political community as meriting public attention and governmental action
– Socializing new generations
– Providing a political forum
– Making profits
• Enormous impact on politics
• Shapes and reflects public opinion

Primacy of Television

• Most influential medium (primary source of information for 90% of Americans)
– Big business
– Increase in news-type programming
– Influence on political process
– Highly superficial
– “Sound bites”
– Narrowcasting
• Talk-show politics on TV, radio, internet
• Internet (increasingly important source for political communication and fund-raising)

Media and Political Campaigns

• Politicians use TV widely because of its importance to the public
– Advertising (very costly; driving up costs of campaigns)
• Negative advertising works
• Can reduce participation and increase cynicism
– Management of news coverage
• spin = interpretation of campaign events or election results that is favorable to the candidate’s campaign strategy
• spin doctors = political campaign advisor who tries to convince journalists of the truth of a particular interpretation of events
– Presidential debates
• Media’s impact on voters – hard to know exactly; influential among people who are undecided

Political Ad Spending on Broadcast TV, 1992-2000

Audiences Reached by Leading Media

Media and Government

• Media can influence government and elected officials
• Media and the Presidency
– Relationship of codependency; they need each other
– White House Press Corps = reporters assigned full-time to cover presidency
– President’s press secretary = presidential staff member responsible for handing White House media relations and communications
• Primary role of media in the U.S. = setting the public agenda; determining the policy issues that need to be addressed

Discussion Questions

• Does the media have too much power in America?
• Is it possible for news organizations to remain independent of the pressure to generate ever-increasing profits through ad revenues?
• Does corporate ownership influence what is and is not covered by the media?
• Do we have a “free” press in the U.S.?

Hot Links to Selected Internet Resources

• Book’s Companion Site:
• Wadsworth’s Political Science Site:
• Yale University Library Public Opinion Subject Guide:
• National Election Studies:
• The Gallup Organization:

 Updated Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 11:46:20 PM by Robert Stockwell -
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