Fall 2012

On the Importance of Public Opinion

Lee Epstein

LEE EPSTEIN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2006, is the Provost Professor of Law & Political Science and the Rader Family Trustee Chair in Law at the University of Southern California. She is the author, coauthor, or editor of fifteen books, including Constitutional Law for a Changing America, 7th ed. (with Thomas G. Walker, 2011) and Advice and Consent: The Politics of Judicial Appointments (with Jeffrey A. Segal, 2005). Her current book project, The Behavior of Federal Judges: A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Rational Choice (with William M. Landes and Richard A. Posner), will be published in late 2012.

“The president’s job approval rating is up”; “50 percent of Americans believe that their taxes will increase in the next year”; “The incumbent senator is the projected winner by a 2-1 margin.” This is how most of us follow and understand public opinion: through survey and election results that seem to be everywhere. But 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. The authors in this issue speak to the “much more.”

How do we learn about public opinion, and what does it tell us? These are the questions considered in our first four essays. D. James Greiner and Kevin Quinn begin the volume with a fascinating glimpse into the world of polling, especially exit polls. Greiner, an expert on voting rights, and Quinn, a political scientist with expertise in statistical methodology, are uniquely poised commentators. The two have conducted exit polls of their own–but that may be damning with faint praise. After the debacle in Florida with the 2000 presidential election, many of us are skeptical of exit polls. Greiner and Quinn share our skepticism, suggesting that exit polls “are most prone to fail when we most want them to work”–that is, in close elections. But this is not their only concern. In a day and age when conventional (telephone) and more au courant (Internet) polling techniques can provide vast amounts of information far more cheaply, Greiner and Quinn question whether exit polls will and should survive. .  .  .

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