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The Measurement of Public Opinion

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  • 0:02 What Is Public Opinion?
  • 1:21 Measurement of Public Opinion
  • 3:00 How Polling Works
  • 5:23 Polling Errors
  • 7:51 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 measurement of public opinion, including the development and use of opinion polling.

What Is Public Opinion?

Do you favor a ban on smoking in public? Are you actively trying to avoid fat in your diet? These are recent questions in real public opinion polls. 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.

Public opinion is an essential part of American politics. It's a useful tool and is often used when referring to political issues. For example, let's say John is a politician in an area suffering from severe drought. John wants to know how many people in his district favor watering restrictions, so he knows whether or not he'll vote for the restrictions.

As a politician, he'll likely want to monitor public opinion so he can accurately represent the views of those in his district. That's why many government offices, and even the news media, keep a close watch on public opinion. Public opinion helps us understand the political views of the American people and what policies they support.

Measurement of Public Opinion

So, how do we know what the public thinks? 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.

Polling organizations are businesses that measure public opinion through strategic methods. The best-known polling organization is the Gallup Organization. It's an American company that publishes timely public opinion research on a multitude of topics through the use of the Gallup Poll.

George Gallup developed his first Gallup Poll in 1932 when his mother-in-law ran for office in Iowa. Though almost everyone felt she'd lose to the popular incumbent, his polls showed she had a chance and how she could win. He was right! The Gallup Poll went on to be widely used in 1935 and has been tweaked many times in its quest for accuracy. These days, the Gallup Poll routinely measures public opinion and attitudes on various political, social and economic issues.

How Polling Works

Let's take a look at how polling works. The Gallup Poll, and other polls like it, strives to gather accurate statistics. First, the pollsters must carefully design their questions. In order to produce accurate polling results, the questions must be objectively worded. This means the questions are phrased to be neutral and impartial. The questions shouldn't reflect the politician's or the pollster's views.

For example, in John's poll, the pollster shouldn't ask the citizens, 'Do you resent the government telling you how often you can water your lawn?' This question won't likely produce an accurate response. Instead, the pollster should phrase the question more objectively. The pollster might say, 'The government is considering watering restrictions in order to address drought concerns. Do you support watering restrictions? Why or why not?'

After designing objective questions, the polling organization must select a polling sample. A sample is a section of people designed to accurately reflect the overall population of a polling area. For example, if John is a city councilman in Greenway City, and the watering restrictions will affect all of Greenway City, then the polling sample needs to accurately reflect the population of Greenway City.

There's no need to poll the entire population. Think of it this way: A chef doesn't need to taste every bite of soup to know 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 that an accurate sample will be a representative sample. A representative sample has the same basic characteristics as the general population. For example, let's say the population of Greenway City includes a 25% Italian population. A representative sample must also include a 25% Italian population.

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