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Understanding and Measuring Public Opinion

New Dædalus examines the impact of polling on elections and public policy


Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In news stories and political commentary, we hear daily about measures of public opinion. But why, exactly, does public opinion matter? How is it shaped, and to what extent does it influence public policy?

These questions are explored in the Fall 2012 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Guest edited by Lee Epstein, professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, the volume features eight essays by political scientists, legal scholars, and public policy experts. In some cases, their answers are surprising.

For instance, Diana C. Mutz (University of Pennsylvania) argues that televised campaign advertisements may not do as much to sway public opinion as their ubiquity—and budget allotments—would suggest. Mutz contends that ever-increasing levels of political advertising undermine public confidence in the electoral process.

If people perceive voting results “to be a function of who hired the better political consultants or who spent more on advertising, then it becomes very difficult for those on the losing side to see the election outcome as legitimate,” Mutz writes.

Essays by James A. Stimson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Robert S. Erikson (Columbia University) explore the impact of public opinion on election outcomes and policy. Stimson specifically discusses the phenomenon whereby public opinion tends to shift away from the ideological preferences of the party in power. Thus, a Democratic presidency is likely to result in a shift to the right in public policy preferences, a Republican presidency to the left.

The other essays examine topics such as the potential role of exit polls in improving the administration of elections, the relationship between public opinion and Supreme Court decisions, and variations in attitudes and beliefs among Latino and black citizens.

“There is much more to public opinion than a percentage or an outcome reported in a headline, posted on a website, or tweeted, emailed, or texted,” Epstein writes in her introduction to the volume. “The ‘much more’ drives our national politics and is key to making sound public policy choices.”

The volume includes:

  • “On the Importance of Public Opinion” by Lee Epstein (University of Southern California)
  • “Long Live the Exit Poll” by D. James Greiner (Harvard Law School) and Kevin M. Quinn (UC Berkeley School of Law)
  • “On the Meaning and Measurement of Mood” by James A. Stimson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  • “Public Opinion at the Macro Level” by Robert S. Erikson (Columbia University)
  • “Is Public Opinion Stable? Resolving the Micro/Macro Disconnect in Studies of Public Opinion” by James N. Druckman (Northwestern University) and Thomas J. Leeper (Northwestern University)
  • “Public Opinion and the Supreme Court: The Puzzling Case of Abortion” by Linda Greenhouse (Yale Law School)
  • “The Great Divide: Campaign Media in the American Mind” by Diana C. Mutz (University of Pennsylvania)
  • “Latino Public Opinion and Realigning the American Electorate” by Gary M. Segura (Stanford University)
  • “Being Free in Obama’s America: Racial Differences in Perceptions of Constraints on Political Action” by James L. Gibson (Washington University in St. Louis)

“Understanding how public opinion is shaped, how it is measured, and how it is changing is crucial to a healthy democracy,” said American Academy President Leslie C. Berlowitz. “In the midst of a pivotal election season, where millions of dollars are spent on advertising to sway public opinion, the contributors to this volume provide needed insight and perspective.”

Order print and Kindle copies of the Fall 2012 Dædalus.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ( is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science, engineering, and technology; the humanities, arts, and education; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world.


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