Public Opinion Definition and Examples

Social networking and public opinion.
Social networking and public opinion. Aelitta / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Public opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs about a particular topic or issue held by a significant proportion of the total population. In 1961, American political scientist V.O. Key struck the importance of public opinion in politics when he defined it as “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” As computer-assisted statistical and demographic data analysis advanced during the 1990s, public opinion came to be understood as the collective view of a more specifically defined portion of the population, such as a particular demographic or ethnic group. While commonly considered in terms of its influence on politics and elections, public opinion is also a force in other areas, such as fashion, popular culture, the arts, advertising, and consumer spending.

History 

While there is no specific reference to the term until the 18th century, ancient history is peppered with phenomena closely resembling public opinion. For example, the histories of ancient Babylonia and Assyria refer to the influence of popular attitudes. The prophets and patriarchs of ancient Israel and Samaria were known to attempt to sway the opinions of the people. In referring to the classic direct democracy of ancient Athens, influential philosopher Aristotle stated that “he who loses the support of the people is a king no longer.” 

During the Middle Ages, most common people were focused more on surviving plagues and famines than on matters of state and politics. However, phenomena similar to public opinion existed. In 1191, for example, English statesman William Longchamp, bishop of Ely, found himself attacked by his political opponents for employing troubadours to sing of his merits to the extent that “people spoke of him as though his equal did not exist on earth.”

By the end of the beginning of the Renaissance, interest in public affairs was growing steadily as the lay population became better educated. In Italy, the rise of humanism gave rise to a cadre of writers whose skills were especially useful to princes hoping to expand their domains. For example, King Charles V of Spain hired Italian writer Pietro Aretino to defame, threaten, or flatter his rivals. A contemporary of Aretino, the influential Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, stressed that princes should pay close attention to popular opinion, particularly concerning the distribution of public offices. 

The 17th and 18th centuries brought more sophisticated means of distributing information. The first regularly published newspapers appeared around 1600 and multiplied rapidly, despite often being subjected to government censorship. The end of the 18th century finally showed the immense power of public opinion. Both the American Revolution from 1765 to 1783 and the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 were inspired to a large extent by expressions of public opinion. In both cases, the spontaneous ability of public opinion to overwhelm one of the best-entrenched and powerful institutions of the age—the monarchy—greatly increased the ranks of its devotees. 

As theories of social classes evolved during the 19th century, some scholars concluded that public opinion was primarily the domain of the upper classes. In 1849, the English author William A. Mackinnon defined it as “that sentiment on any given subject which is entertained by the best informed, most intelligent, and most moral persons in the community.” Notably, Mackinnon also distinguished public opinion from “public clamor,” which he described as “that sort of feeling arising from the passions of a multitude acting without consideration; or an excitement created amongst the uneducated.”

During the late 19th and the early 20th century, noted social and political scholars considered the realities and effects of public opinion. In 1945, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote, “Public opinion contains all kinds of falsity and truth, but it takes a great man to find the truth in it.” Hegel further warned that “The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great.” 

According to Canadian communications theorist Sherry Devereux Ferguson, most 20th century theories of public opinion fall into one of three general categories. The “populist” approach sees public opinion as a means of ensuring a healthy flow of communication between elected representatives and the people they represent. The “elitist” or social constructionist category emphasizes the ease with which public opinion can be manipulated and misinterpreted in light of the multiplicity of differing viewpoints that tend to form around any issue. The third, rather negative, known as “critical” or radical-functionalist, holds that public opinion is largely shaped by those power, rather than by the general public, including minority groups. For example, charismatic authoritarian or totalitarian leaders are typically extremely adept at controlling public opinion

Role in Politics


The most basic processes of democracy demand that citizens form opinions on various issues. Virtually any matter which requires executive of legislative government policymakers to render decisions may become a topic of public opinion. In politics, public opinion is often stimulated or reinforced by outside agencies such as biased media sources, grassroots movements, or government agencies or officials. English philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham considered the most difficult job of legislators to be “conciliating the public opinion, in correcting it when erroneous, and in giving it that bent which shall be most favorable to produce obedience to his mandates.” 

Even as democracy was struggling to supplant monarchy, some scholars warned that public opinion could become a dangerous force. In his 1835 book, Democracy in America, French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville warned that a government too easily swayed by the masses would become a “tyranny of the majority.” Over a century later, on February 19, 1957, then-Senator John F. Kennedy spoke of the inherent dangers of increased public participation in the policy-making process. “Public opinion in a democracy has, on many occasions in this nation and others, been too slow, too selfish, too short-sighted, too provincial, too rigid, or too impractical.” However, noted Kennedy, in the case of “hard decisions which require overwhelming public support, we can not—we dare not—exclude the people or ignore their opinions, whether right or wrong.”

Political scientists have determined that rather than impact the fine points of government policy, public opinion tends to set the boundaries within which policymakers operate. Not surprisingly, elected public officials will usually try to satisfy widespread public demand while avoiding making decisions they believe will be widely unpopular. In the United States, for example, there can be little doubt that widespread public opinion has paved the way for hugely impactful—yet controversial—social reform legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

In his 2000 book Politicians Don’t Pander, professor of political science Robert Y. Shapiro argues that most politicians have already decided how they will act on a given issue and use public opinion research merely to identify slogans and symbols that will make their predetermined actions more popular with their constituents. In this manner, Shapiro concludes that politicians are more likely to use public opinion research to manipulate the public rather than to act according to their wishes. In contrast to direct democracy, representative democracy tends to limit the influence of public opinion on specific government decisions, since in most cases, the only choice available to the public is that of approving or disapproving the election of government officials.

Public opinion tends to have a greater influence on government policy at the local level than at the state or national levels. This can be explained by the fact that local issues, such as road maintenance, parks, schools, and hospitals are less complex than those dealt with by higher levels of government. In addition, there are fewer levels of bureaucracy between voters and local elected leaders.

Key Influences 

The opinions of each individual are shaped by a vast array of internal and external influences, thus making it difficult to predict how public opinion on a given issue will develop. While some public opinions can be easily explained by specific events and circumstances such as wars or economic depressions, other factors influencing public opinion are less easily identified.    

Social Environment

Considered the most influential factor in determining public opinion is the person’s social environment: family, friends, workplace, church, or school. Research has shown that people tend to adopt the predominating attitudes and opinions of the social groups to which they belong. Researchers have found, for example, that if someone in the United States who is liberal becomes surrounded at home or workplace by people who profess conservatism, that person is more likely to start voting for conservative candidates than is a liberal whose family and friends are also liberal.

Media

The media—newspapers, television and radio, news and opinion websites, and social media—tend to affirm already established public attitudes and opinions. The U.S. news media, for example, having become increasingly partisan, tend to direct their coverage of personalities and issues toward conservative or liberal segments of the public, thus reinforcing the preexisting political attitudes of their audiences. 

Media can also prompt people to take action. Before elections, for example, media coverage can inspire previously undecided or “leaning” voters to not only vote for but also contribute to a particular candidate or party. Most recently, the media, particularly social media, has played a negative role in shaping public opinion by spreading misinformation.

Interest Groups

Special interest groups, attempt to influence public opinion on issues of concern to their members. Interest groups may be concerned with political, economic, religious, or social issues or causes and work mostly through mass media and social media as well as by word of mouth. Some larger interest groups have the resources to make use of advertising and public relations firms. Increasingly, interest groups attempt to manipulate public opinion by exploiting the results of unsystematically conducted social media “straw-polls” as a means of making their causes appear more widely supported than they are. 

Opinion Leaders

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump wears an oversize "Make America Great Again Hat.”
A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump wears an oversize "Make America Great Again Hat.”. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Opinion leaders—typically prominent figures in public life—play a major role in influencing public opinion. Political leaders, for example, can turn a less well-known issue into a top national priority simply by calling attention to it in the media. One of the main ways in which opinion leaders rally public agreement on an issue is by coining memorable slogans. In World War I, for example, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson told the world that the Allies were aiming to “make the world safe for democracy” by fighting “a war to end all wars.” In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump rallied his supporters with his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Other Influences 


Events, such as natural disasters or tragedies often influence public opinion. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, all galvanized public opinion about the environment. Tragic mass shootings, such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, intensified public opinion favoring stricter gun control laws.   

Some changes in public opinion are harder to explain. Since the 1960s, public opinions regarding sex and gender, religion, family, race, social welfare, income inequality, and the economy have undergone major shifts in many parts of the world. However, the change in public attitudes and opinions in these areas is difficult to attribute to any specific event or group of events.

Opinion Polling 

What do you think?
What do you think?. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Scientifically conducted, nonbiased public opinion polls are used to gauge the public’s views and attitudes regarding specific topics. Polls are typically conducted either face-to-face or by telephone. Other polls may be conducted by mail or online. In face-to-face and telephone surveys, trained interviewers ask questions of people chosen at random from the population being measured. Responses are given, and interpretations are made based on the results. Unless all individuals in the sample population have an equal chance of being interviewed, the results of the poll would not be representative of the population and could thus be biased. 

Percentages reported in opinion polls reflect the proportion of a given population that has a particular response. For example, if the results of a scientific poll claiming a 3-point margin of error indicated that 30% of the eligible voters polled preferred a certain candidate, this means that if all voters were asked this question, between 27% and 33% would be expected to say they preferred this candidate. 

History of Polling 

The first known example of an opinion poll is generally considered to have been conducted in July 1824, when local newspapers in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina asked voters their opinions on the upcoming presidential election pitting Revolutionary War hero Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams. The results showed that 70% of respondents intended to vote for Jackson, who went on to narrowly win the popular vote. However, when neither candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes, Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives.

The idea caught on and newspapers across the United States soon were running their own polls. Known as “straw polls,” these early surveys were not scientifically designed, and their accuracy varied considerably. By the 20th century, efforts were made to make the polling more accurate and better representative of the community.

George Gallup, American public-opinion statistician who created the Gallup Poll.
George Gallup, American public-opinion statistician who created the Gallup Poll. Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1916, a nationwide survey conducted by The Literary Digest correctly predicted the election of President Woodrow Wilson. On a roll, The Literary Digest polls went on to correctly predict the victories of Warren G. Harding in 1920, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Herbert Hoover in 1928, and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In 1936, the Digest’s poll of 2.3 million voters projected that Republican Alf Landon would win the presidential election. Instead, the incumbent Democrat Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide. The polling error was attributed to the fact that Landon’s supporters were more enthusiastic about participating in the poll than Roosevelt’s. In addition, the Digest’s survey had sampled far too many affluent Americans who tended to vote for Republican candidates. The same year, however, upstart pollster George Gallup—of Gallup poll fame—conducted a much smaller but more scientifically designed poll that correctly predicted Roosevelt's landslide victory. The Literary Digest soon went out of business, as public opinion polling took off.

Purposes of Polling

When reported by the mass media, poll results may inform, entertain, or educate the public. In elections, scientifically conducted polls may represent one of the most objective and non-biased sources of political information for voters. Polls can also help politicians, business leaders, journalists, and other social elites learn what the general public is thinking. History has shown that government leaders and policymakers who pay attention to public opinion are better able to respond to the feelings of the groups they represent. 

Polls serve as a measurement tool that indicates how a population thinks and feels about any given topic. Polling gives people who normally have no voice in the mass media a chance to be heard. In this way, polls help people of different cultures better understand each other by giving individuals a chance to speak for themselves instead of allowing the most vocal media stars to present their opinion as the opinion of all.

Abilities and Limitations

Public opinion polling can fairly accurately reveal how opinions on issues are distributed within a given population. For example, a Gallup poll conducted in May 2021 showed that 63% percent of Democrats, 32% of independents and 8% of Republicans were satisfied with the way things were going in the U.S. Assuming that scientifically designed questions are asked by trained interviewers, polling can reveal how intensely opinions are held, the reasons for these opinions, and the likelihood that the opinions might be changed. Occasionally, polling can reveal the degree to which people holding an opinion can be thought of as a cohesive group, whose minds are unlikely to be changed. 

While polls are useful for revealing “what” or “how much” about public opinion, finding our “how” or “why” opinions are formed requires qualitative research—such as the use of focus groups. The use of focus groups allows for close observation between limited numbers of people rather than posing a series of questions to an individual in an in-depth interview.

Ideally, polls are designed and conducted by people or organizations that have no mission other than the objective measurement of public opinion. Unfortunately, bias can enter into the polling process at any point, particularly when the entity conducting the poll has a financial or political interest in the result or wishes to use the result to promote a specific agenda. For example, polls on political issues may be skewed by news agencies to reflect the opinions of their audience. Similarly, polls may be skewed by manufacturing firms engaged in market research, by interest groups seeking to popularize their views, and even by academic scholars wishing to inform or influence public discourse about some significant social or scientific issue. The results of such potentially biased polls are often released to the mass media in practice known as advocacy polling. 

It is also important to remember that polls are not elections. Polls are unable to predict the future behavior of individuals, including how—or if—they will actually vote in elections. Evidence of this can be seen in the poll-defying 1936 presidential election victory of Franklin Roosevelt over Alf Landon. Perhaps the best predictor of how people will vote remains simply how they voted in the last election.

Sources

  • Key, V. O. “Public Opinion and American Democracy.” Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1961, ASIN:‎ B0007GQCFE.
  • Mackinnon, William Alexander (1849). “History of Civilisation and Public Opinion.” HardPress Publishing, 2021, ISBN-10: 1290718431.
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1945). “The Philosophy of Right.” Dover Publications, 2005, ISBN-10: ‎ 0486445631.
  • Bryce, James (1888), “The American Commonwealth.” Liberty Fund, 1995, ISBN-10: ‎086597117X.
  • Ferguson, Sherry Devereaux.“Researching the Public Opinion Environment: Theories and Methods.” SAGE Publications, May 11, 2000, ISBN-10: ‎0761915311. 
  • Bentham, Jeremy. “Political Tactics (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham).” Clarendon Press, 1999, ISBN-10: ‎0198207727.
  • de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). “Democracy in America.” ‎ University of Chicago Press, April 1, 2002, ISBN-10: ‎0226805360.
  • Shapiro, Robert Y. “Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness.” University of Chicago Press, 2000, ISBN-10: ‎0226389839.
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Longley, Robert. "Public Opinion Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 20, 2021, thoughtco.com/public-opinion-definition-and-examples-5196466. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 20). Public Opinion Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/public-opinion-definition-and-examples-5196466 Longley, Robert. "Public Opinion Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/public-opinion-definition-and-examples-5196466 (accessed October 26, 2021).