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What is Public Opinion?

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  • 0:02 What Is Public Opinion?
  • 1:47 Public Opinion Polls
  • 4:45 Influences on Public Opinion
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Public opinion is an expression of the general population's thoughts on a particular political issue. This lesson discusses the concept of public opinion and explores influences on public opinion.

What Is Public Opinion?

Most people say their favorite color is blue. Most people say their least favorite color is brown. So, public opinion is that blue is pretty and brown is ugly, right? Public opinion is an expression of the general population's thoughts on a particular issue. Instead of saying 'Jane's opinion' or 'John's opinion,' we say 'public opinion' in order to represent a common, or popular, opinion on a particular issue.

For example, a July 2014 poll showed that one in six Americans believes immigration to be the most important U.S. problem. In other words, the public opinion is that immigration is an important U.S. problem. Public opinion is a useful tool in politics and is often used when referring to political issues. It can be used to talk about a fiscal issue, like the budget deficit, or a social issue, like welfare benefits.

In a democracy, it's especially important for politicians to pay attention to public opinion because the public plays a crucial role in political decision-making. Knowing, and successfully using, public opinion can help politicians tap into popular political desires and win elections. When the public overwhelmingly disagrees with a candidate's views, that candidate has little chance at being elected. Once elected, political officials can use public opinion to push through legislation and stay in the good graces of the people they serve.

Public Opinion Polls

One of the main ways public opinion is determined is through public opinion polls. These are surveys commissioned by various groups in order to determine people's thoughts on particular matters. For example, the poll regarding immigration came from the Gallup Organization, which is an American company that publishes timely public opinion research on a multitude of topics through the use of the Gallup Poll. The Gallup Poll was first used in 1935 and routinely measures public opinion and attitudes on various political, social, and economic issues.

The Gallup Poll, and other polls like it, use samples of the population rather than trying to speak to everyone. Samples are designed to accurately reflect the overall population. Think of it this way: a chef doesn't need to taste every bite of soup to learn that it needs more spice; a pollster doesn't need to poll every person to learn public opinion. In each case, a sample will do.

Keep in mind, however, that a good sample will be a representative sample. A representative sample has the same basic characteristics as the general population. For example, the Hispanic population of America is approximately 17%. So, in our poll about immigration, the polled sample should also include a 17% portion of Hispanic Americans.

Sampling error is common and results when a sample isn't representative of the general population. For example, you've likely seen a source conducting a poll by stopping people on the street. This type of poll will produce a skewed result because only particular people are likely to be present in that geographic area at that time. For example, you won't find many college students near downtown office buildings on a weekday early afternoon, and you won't find many full-time professionals at a grocery store on a weekday mid-morning.

This type of sampling error actually occurred during the 1936 presidential race. The Literary Digest, a well-known magazine, polled more than a million people before predicting Alfred Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt. The Digest polled people they found in phone books and automobile registries. However, this was during the Great Depression when phones and cars were luxury items. The results were heavily skewed, and Roosevelt easily defeated Landon.

Influences on Public Opinion

Notice that many different factors affect public opinion. Let's look at a few of the major influences:

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