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GOVT. Chapter 8 Public Opinion & Voting. Learning Objectives. What is Public Opinion?. What Is Public Opinion?.

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Chapter 8

Public Opinion & Voting

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What Is Public Opinion?

  • We define public opinion as the sum total of a complex collection of opinions held by many people on issues in the public arena, such as taxes, health care, Social Security, etc.

  • Most people acquire their political attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and knowledge through a complex learning process called political socialization.

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The Importance of Family

  • The family’s influence is strongest when children clearly perceive their parents’ attitudes.

  • In many situations, the political party of the parents becomes the political party of the children, particularly if both parents support the same party.

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The Schools and Educational Attainment

  • Education also strongly influences an individual’s political attitudes. Generally, those with more education have more knowledge about politics and policy than those with less education.

  • Many Americans today believe that our schools are not fulfilling the mission of political socialization. Too many students are graduating from high school with too little knowledge of the American system of government.

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The Media

  • The media – newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet – also have an impact on political socialization.

  • The most influential of these is television, which continues to be a leading source of political and public affairs information for most people.

  • Generally, the media tend to wield the most influence over the views of persons who have not yet formed opinions about certain issues or political candidates.

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Opinion Leaders

  • Opinion leaders may be public officials, religious leaders, teachers, or celebrities. These people also often include politicians or former politicians.

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Major Life Events

  • Often, the political attitudes of an entire generation of Americans are influenced by a major event. For example, the Great Depression (1929-1939), World War II (1939-1945), the Vietnam War (1964-1975), and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

  • The recent Great Recession and the financial crisis that struck in September 2008 will surely affect popular attitudes in years to come.

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Peer Groups

  • Peer groups – friends, classmates, co-workers, club members, or religious group members – become a significant factor in the political socialization process.

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Economic Status and Occupation

  • A person’s economic status may influence her or his political views. For example, poorer people are more likely to favor government assistance programs.

  • Where a person works also affects her or his opinion. Co-workers who spend a great deal of time together tend to influence one another.

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Measuring Public Opinion

  • The only relatively precise way to measure public opinion is through the use of a public opinion poll – a numerical survey of the public’s opinion on a particular topic at a particular moment.

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Early Polling Efforts

  • Since the early 1800’s, magazines and newspapers have often spiced up their articles by conducting straw polls, which try to read the public’s collective mind by simply asking a large number of people the same question.

  • The problem with straw polls is that the opinions expressed usually represent an atypical subgroup of the population, or a biased sample.

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Polling Today

  • Today, polling is used extensively by political candidates and policymakers.

  • Polls can be remarkably accurate when they are conducted properly. In the last fourteen presidential elections, Gallup polls conducted in early September predicted the eventual winners in eleven of the fourteen races.

  • Most Gallup polls sample between 1,500 and 2000 people. If the sample is properly selected, the opinions of those in the sample will be representative of the opinions held by the population as a whole.

  • The most important principle in sampling is randomness. A random sample means that each person within the entire population being polled has an equal chance of being chosen.

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Polling Today, cont.

  • Poll takers also want to ensure that there is no bias in their polling questions.

  • Poll results can differ depending on how the question is phrased. Polling questions also sometimes reduce complex issues to questions that simply call for “yes” or “no” answers.

  • Those interviewed may be influenced by the interviewer or may answer without having any information on the issue, affecting the reliability of the poll.

  • Any opinion poll contains a sampling error, which is the difference between what the sample results show and what the true results would have been had everyone in the relevant population been interviewed.

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Polling Today: Misuse of Polls

  • Today, a frequently heard complaint is that, instead of measuring public opinion, polls can end up creating it.

  • One tactic of political campaigns is to use push polls, which ask “fake” polling questions that are actually designed to “push” voters toward one candidate or another.

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Factors Affecting Voter Turnout

  • In the last decades of the 20th century, legal restrictions based on income, gender, race, and other factors were almost completely eliminated, and yet voter turnout in presidential elections still hovered around 55%. In the last two presidential elections, turnout has exceeded 60%.

  • According to a Pew Research Center survey, one of the reasons for low voter turnout is that many nonvoters do not feel that they have a duty to vote.

  • Nearly 70% of nonvoters said that they did not vote because they lacked information about the candidates.

  • Some people believe that their vote will not make any difference.

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The Legal Right to Vote

  • In the United States today, all citizens who are at least 18 years of age have the right to vote.

  • Those who drafted the Constitution left the power to set suffrage qualifications to the individual states. Most states limited suffrage to adult white males who owned property. By 1850, all white males were allowed to vote.

  • The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed suffrage to African American males.

    • For many decades, African Americans were denied the ability to exercise their voting rights by such methods as literacy tests, poll taxes, white primaries, and mob violence.

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The Legal Right to Vote, cont.

  • The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote.

  • In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment reduced the minimum voting age to eighteen.

  • Some restrictions do still exist. For example, every state except North Dakota requires voters to register with the appropriate state or local officials before voting. Residency requirements are usually imposed, and most states do not permit prison inmates, mentally ill people, convicted felons, or election-law violators to vote.

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Attempts to Improve Voter Turnout

  • Attempts typically have a partisan dimension. This is because the people who find it difficult to register to vote tend to be disproportionately Democratic.

  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the “Motor Voter Law”), simplified the voter-registration process by requiring states to provide all eligible citizens with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license.

  • In 1998, Oregon voters approved a ballot initiative requiring that all elections in that state be conducted exclusively by mail.

    • In the 2008 presidential elections, 66% of eligible Oregonians voted.

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Attempts to Improve Voting Procedures

  • Because of serious problems in achieving accurate vote counts, particularly in the 2000 presidential elections, steps have been taken to attempt to ensure more accuracy.

  • In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided funds to the states to help them purchase new electronic voting equipment.

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Attempts to Improve Voting Procedures

  • In the 2006 elections, about half of the states that were using new electronic voting systems reported problems.

  • Fewer polling places used the electronic systems in 2008.

  • One feature of the 2008 elections was the large number of states that allowed early voting at polling places that opened weeks before Election Day.

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Who Actually Votes

  • Certain factors appear to affect voter turnout.

    • Educational Attainment – education appears to be the most important factor. The more education a person has, the more likely that he or she will be a regular voter.

    • Income Level and Age – Wealthy people tend to be overrepresented among regular voters. Generally, older voters turn out more regularly.

    • Minority Status – Racial and ethnic minorities traditionally have been underrepresented; however, participation in recent elections has increased.

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Party Identification

  • For established voters, party identification is one of the most important and lasting predictors of how a person will vote.

  • A large number of voters call themselves independents, although many actually support one or the other of the two major parties quite regularly.

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Perception of the Candidates

  • Voters often base their decisions on the perceived character of the candidates rather than on their qualifications or policy positions.

  • Such perceptions were important in the 2008 presidential elections, when Barack Obama was at first seen by some as aloof or even arrogant. However, his calm temperament during the economic crisis was viewed as “presidential.”

  • John McCain sometimes came across as angry, and his attempts to repeatedly change direction during the campaign, as well as his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate played into the impression that he was erratic and unpredictable.

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Policy Choices

  • When people vote for candidates who share their positions on particular issues, they are engaging in policy voting.

  • Historically, economic issues have had the strongest influence on voters’ choices.

  • Some of the most heated debates in American political campaigns have involved social issues, such as abortion, gay and lesbian rights, the death penalty, and religion in the schools.

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Socioeconomic Factors

  • These factors include educational attainment, income level, age, gender, religion, and geographic location.

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Socioeconomic Factors, cont.

  • As a general rule, people with more education are more likely to vote Republican, although in recent years, voters with postgraduate degrees have tended to vote Democratic.

  • Businesspersons tend to vote Republican. Recently, professionals have been more likely to vote Democratic than in years past. Manual laborers, factory workers, and union members are more likely to vote Democratic.

  • Age differences in support for parties have often been quite small. Younger voters are noticeably more liberal on issues dealing with the rights of minorities, women, and gay and lesbian rights.

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Socioeconomic Factors, cont.

  • Age had a striking impact on voters’ choices in 2008. Voters under 30 chose Obama by a two-to-one margin.

  • Until about thirty years ago, there seemed to be no fixed pattern of voter preferences by gender in presidential elections. Some political analysts believe that a gender gap became a major determinant in the 1980 elections.

  • In the 2008 presidential elections, Barack Obama carried the male vote by one percentage point and the female vote by a 13% margin. John McCain had hoped to gain the female vote by naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. This does not seem to have worked.

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Socioeconomic Factors, cont.

  • In recent years, regardless of denomination, white Christian voters who attend church regularly have favored the Republicans by substantial margins. Jewish voters are strongly Democratic, regardless of whether they attend services.

  • In today’s presidential contests, states in the South, the Great Plains, and parts of the Rocky Mountains are strongly Republican. The Northeast, the West Coast, and Illinois are firmly Democratic.

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  • For many Americans, where they fall in the political spectrum is a strong indicator of how they will vote: liberals vote for Democrats, and conservatives vote for Republicans.

  • The position between the political extremes has been described as the vital center. It is vital because without it, necessary compromise may be difficult, if not impossible.

  • In the 2008 elections, 89% of voters who identified themselves as liberals voted for Barack Obama, as well as 20% of self-identified conservatives.

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Politics on the Web