An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2012

On Public Opinion

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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. 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.

Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944. Watercolor and gouache, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Museum purchase, Save-the-Art fund, 2007.037.1. Image © by SEPS licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved.
norman rockwell painting of voting booth polling
Norman Rockwell, Election Day, 1944. Watercolor and gouache, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Museum purchase, Save-the-Art fund, 2007.037.1. Image © by SEPS licensed by Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, Ind. All rights reserved.

Long Live the Exit Poll

We discuss the history of the exit poll as well as its future in an era characterized by increasingly effective and inexpensive alternatives for obtaining information. With respect to the exit poll's future, we identify and assess four purposes it might serve. We conclude that the exit poll's most important function in the future should, and probably will, be to provide information about the administration of the franchise and about the voter's experience in casting a ballot. The nature of this purpose suggests that it may make sense for academic institutions to replace media outlets as the primary implementers of exit polls.

Authors D. James Greiner and Kevin M. Quinn

On the Meaning & Measurement of Mood

Public policy mood, a concept now more than twenty years old, is the measure of left/right preferences over policy choices in American politics. In this essay, I comment on the theoretical need for such a measure and discuss the strategy for estimation. I produce the measure itself for the years from 1952 to 2011. Then I take on the question of how many dimensions of such operational ideology exist.

Public Opinion at the Macro Level

Erikson’s book “The Macro Polity,” coauthored with Michael B. MacKuen and James A. Stimson and published in 2002, depicts the dynamics of public opinion and electoral politics in the United States at the macro level; the analysis is based on micro-level foundations of micro-level political behavior. This essay presents the book’s main arguments, in some instances extending the analysis beyond its original 1956–1996 time frame to incorporate data from the George W. Bush administration. The central thesis is that there is more rationality and predictability to American politics when viewed in the aggregate than one might infer from considering only the limited political awareness of the average citizen.

Is Public Opinion Stable? Resolving the Micro/Macro Disconnect in Studies of Public Opinion

The origins and nature of public opinion have long attracted the attention of social scientists. Yet a number of questions remain; among the more perplexing is whether–and under what conditions–public opinion is stable. The answer depends in large part on whether one looks at aggregations of individual opinions (macro public opinion) or at the individual opinions themselves (micro public opinion). In this essay, we explore the macro/micro divide and offer a framework to determine when opinions are likely to be stable or volatile.

Authors James N. Druckman and Thomas J. Leeper

Public Opinion & the Supreme Court: The Puzzling Case of Abortion

The relationship between the Supreme Court and public opinion remains ambiguous, despite efforts over many years by scholars both of the Court and of mass behavior to decipher it. Certainly Supreme Court Justices live in the world, and are propelled by the political system to their life-tenured positions. And certainly the Court, over time, appears to align itself with the broadly defined public mood. But the mechanism by which this occurs–the process by which the Court and the public engage one another in a highly attenuated dialogue–remains obscure.

The Great Divide: Campaign Media in the American Mind

There is a huge difference between public perceptions of the power of media in elections and academic evidence of its influence. This gap stems from the fact that the public uses different forms of evidence than academics use to infer media power. This essay outlines the reasons for this great divide, then highlights the seriousness of its consequences for the allocation of political resources. Public beliefs in omnipotent media contribute to wasted time and money; ultimately, they undermine the legitimacy of election outcomes.

Being Free in Obama’s America: Racial Differences in Perceptions of Contraints on Political Action

Many studies of interracial differences in rates of political participation pay too little attention to African Americans’ perceptions of whether they can freely participate in politics. Survey evidence collected over the last several decades has consistently shown that black Americans perceive much less political freedom available to them than do white Americans. The gap in perceived freedom has narrowed somewhat in recent years but remains large.

Author James L. Gibson