Defining, Forming, and Measuring Public Opinion

Photo by Stephen Melkisthenian, Flickr, Creative Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.06.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Defining Public Opinion

1.1 – Introduction

Voter Poll: Voter polling questionnaire on display at the Smithsonian Institution

Public opinion or Political opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion. Public opinion as a concept gained credence with the rise of “public” in the eighteenth century. The English term “public opinion” dates back to the eighteenth century and has derived from the French “l’opinion”, which was first used in 1588 by Montaigne. This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), one of the earliest classical economists, refers to public opinion in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. But it was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the famous utilitarian Philosopher, who fully developed theories of public opinion. He opined that public opinion had the power to ensure that rulers would rule for the greatest happiness of the greater number. He brought in Utilitarian philosophy in order to define theories of public opinion. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, by using the conceptional tools of his theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, argued (1922, “Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung”), that ‘public opinion’ has the equivalent social function in societies (Gesellschaften) which religion has in communities (Gemeinschaften) – election of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.

German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas (born in 1929), contributed the idea of “Public Sphere” to the discussion of public opinion. The Public Sphere, or bourgeois public is, according to Habermas, where “something approaching public opinion can be formed” (2004, p. 351). Habermas claimed that the Public Sphere featured universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, he believes that these three features for how public opinion are best formed are no longer in place in western liberal democratic countries. Public opinion, in western democracy, is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.

The American sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900 – 1987) has proposed an altogether different conception of the “public. ” According to Blumer, public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior (another specialized term) which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved. Blumer claims that people participate in public in different capacities and to different degrees. So, public opinion polling cannot measure the public. An educated individual’s participation is more important than that of a drunk. The “mass,” in which people independently make decisions about, for example, which brand of toothpaste to buy, is a form of collective behavior different from the public.

Public opinion plays an important role in the political sphere. Cutting across all aspects of relationship between government and public opinion are studies of voting behavior. These have registered the distribution of opinions on a wide variety of issues, have explored the impact of special interest groups on election outcomes and have contributed to our knowledge about the effects of government propaganda and policy. More often than not, leaders use public opinion to weight their options when instituting new policies, since public opinion represents the popular views of citizens on the proper role of government. However, public opinion can be subject to elite manipulation. Thus, public opinion cannot be the sole determinant factors for informing the people on important issues of the day.

The rapid spread of public opinion measurement around the world is a reflection of the number of uses to which it can be put. Public opinion can be accurately obtained through a random sample survey, if done correctly. Governments have increasingly found surveys to be useful tools for guiding their public policies through voter polls as seen in. The US Department of Agriculture was one of the first government agencies to sponsor systematic and large scale surveys. It was followed by many other federal bodies, including the US information agency which has conducted opinion research in all parts of the world. Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people.The tide of public opinion becomes more and more crucial during political elections, most importantly elections determining the national executive.

1.2 – Political Values

Political cultures have values that are largely shared by their members; these are called political values.

1.2.1 – Value Theory

Value theory encompasses a range of approaches to understanding how, why and to what degree people value things, whether the thing is a person, idea, object, or anything else. This investigation began in ancient philosophy, where it is called axiology or ethics. Early philosophical investigations sought to understand good and evil and the concept of “the good”. Today much of value theory is scientifically empirical, recording what people do value and attempting to understand why they value these things in the context of psychology, sociology, and economics.

A personal or cultural value is an extremely absolute or relative ethical value, the assumption of which can be the basis for ethical action. A value system is a set of consistent values and measures. A principle value is a foundation upon which other values and measures of integrity are based. Those values which are not physiologically determined and normally considered objective, such as a desire to avoid physical pain, seek pleasure, etc., are considered subjective. This means they vary across individuals and cultures and are in many ways aligned with belief and belief systems. Types of values include ethical/moral values, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political) values, social values, and aesthetic values. It is debated whether some values which are not clearly physiologically determined, such as altruism, are intrinsic, and whether others, such as acquisitiveness, should be valued as vices or virtues. Values can be defined as broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of action or outcomes. As such, values reflect a person’s sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be. “Equal rights for all”, “Excellence deserves admiration”, and “People should be treated with respect and dignity” are representative of values.

1.2.2 – Personal Values

Personal Values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, constructive, etc. Values generate behavior and help solve common human problems for survival by comparative rankings of value, the results of which provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them. Over time the public expression of personal values, that groups of people find important in their day-to-day lives, lay the foundations of law, custom and tradition. Personal Values in this way exist in relation to cultural values, either in agreement with or divergent from prevailing norms. A culture is a social system that shares a set of common values, in which such values permit social expectations and collective understandings of the good, beautiful, constructive, etc. Without normative personal values, there would be no cultural reference against which to measure the virtue of individual values and so culture identity would disintegrate.

1.2.3 – Cultural Values

The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, created by sociopolitical scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel based on the World Values Survey.

The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, created by sociopolitical scientists, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, is based on the World Values Survey. Cultures have values that are largely shared by their members. The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honor or respect. In the US, for example, professional athletes at the top levels in some sports are honored (in the form of monetary payment) more than college professors. Surveys show that voters in the United States would be reluctant to elect an atheist as a president, suggesting that belief in God is a value. Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more global and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behavior in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviors at a funeral. In certain cultures they reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures reflect different values.

“Over the last three decades, traditional-age college students have shown an increased interest in personal well-being and a decreased interest in the welfare of others. ” Values seemed to have changed, affecting the beliefs, and attitudes of college students. Members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to. If a group member expresses a value that is in serious conflict with the group’s norms, the group’s authority may carry out various ways of encouraging conformity or stigmatizing the non-conforming behavior of its members

1.3 – Forms of Disagreement

Political dissent refers to any expression designed to convey dissatisfaction with or opposition to the policies of a governing body. Such expression may take forms from vocal disagreement to civil disobedience to the use of violence. Historically, repressive governments have sought to punish political dissent. The protection of freedoms that facilitate peaceful dissent has become a hallmark of free and open societies.

One form of political dissent is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is commonly, though not always, defined as being nonviolent resistance. It is one form of civil resistance. In one view (in India, known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.

Civil disobedience can often take the form of direct action, which occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of direct action can include strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, tax resistance, graffiti, sabotage, hacktivism, property destruction, blockades, and other forms of community resistance.

Direct Action: Mohandas Gandhi and supporters Salt March on March 12, 1930. This was an act of non-violent direct action.

Direct action stands in opposition to a number of other forms of disagreement, like electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration, which are not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement, but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law. The aim is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object; or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, powerful churches or establishment trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.

A common form of political dissent in terms of military service is conscientious objection. A conscientious objector (CO) is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. In general, conscientious objector status is only considered in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.

2 – Forming Public Opinion

2.1 – Forming Political Values

People form political values throughout their life cycle through different agents of political socialization, including family, media, and education.

2.1.1 – Political Socialization

Political socialization is a concept concerning the “study of the developmental processes by which children of all ages (12 to 30) and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors”. It refers to a learning process by which norms and behavior acceptable to a well running political system are transmitted from one generation to another. It is through the performance of this function that individuals are inducted into the political culture and their orientations towards political objects are formed.

2.1.2 – Agents of Socialization

Agents of Socialization

The following agents of Socialization influence to different degrees an individual’s political opinions:

  • Family
  • Media
  • Peers
  • Education
  • Religion
  • Faith
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Geography

These factors and many others that people are introduced to as they grow up will affect their political views throughout the rest of their lives. Political beliefs are often formed during childhood, as parents pass down their ideologies to their children and so on.

2.1.3 – Factors

The agents a child surrounds him/herself with during childhood are crucial to the child’s development of future voting behaviors. Some of these agents include:

Family: Glass (1986) recognizes family as a primary influence in the development of a child’s political orientation, mainly due to constant relationship between parents and child, detailed in the table Family as a Primary Influence below.

Schools: Most influential of all agents, after the family, due to the child’s extended exposure to a variety of political beliefs, such as friends and teachers, both respected sources of information for students.Mass Media: Becker (1975) argue that the media functions as a medium of political information to adolescents and young children.

Religion: Religious tradition can have a strong effect on someone’s political views. For example, Protestants tend to be more conservative (in countries where Protestants are not great majority).

Political Parties: Scholars such as Campbell (1960) note that political parties have very little direct influence on a child due to a contrast of social factors such as age, context, power, etc.

2.1.4 – Agents of Political Socialization

Senior Citizen Involvement: People who have not participated in politics much throughout their life may participate more in retirement.

  1. Family – Most important shaper of basic attitudes Teaches basic political values & loyalty to particular political party
  2. Schools – Teach patriotism and American mythology Early grades build on and reinforce positive learning
  3. Peers – Limited in effect because of self-selection Peer group in youth affects mostly “lifestyle issues”
  4. Mass Media – Effect difficult to measure but substantial Promotes cynicism about government Agenda Setting – Telling us what to think about Framing – Tells us what to think about what is presented
  5. Political leaders and institutions
  6. Churches and Religion Religious right and religious left


[LEFT]: Pledging Allegiance: Children learn political values through political socialization. This can occur through rituals, such as the recitation of the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of each school day.
[RIGHT]: Student Protesters: Student activists in the 1960s protested against US involvement in the Vietnam War. Some activists developed more favorable attitudes toward government as they matured, had families, and became homeowners.

2.2 – Models of Political Socialization

People learn political values and identities by interacting with other people and the media in a process called political socialization.

Accepting Political Legitimacy: In the 2000 election, most Americans quickly accepted the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s decision. Teaching people to accept the “rules of the game,” as in this situation, is an important function of political socialization.

Psychological theories of self development have been broadened by sociologists who explicitly study the role of society and social interaction in self development. Charles Cooley and George Mead both contributed significantly to the sociological understanding of the development of self. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed their ideas further, researching how our sense of morality develops. Gilligan added the dimension of gender differences to Kohlberg’s theory.

How do we get from being newborns to being humans with “selves? ” Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation: they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing “dress up” and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. For example, a child at this is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Latin Kings Socialization: Political socialization does not always mean people are being socialized to accept mainstream political views. The gang “The Latin Kings” (insignia shown) socializes members to violence.

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).

Moral development is an important part of the socialization process. The term refers to the way people learn what society considered to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. Moral development prevents people from acting on unchecked urges, instead considering what is right for society and good for others. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. It isn’t until the teen years that the conventional theory develops, when youngsters become increasingly aware of others’ feelings and take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad. ” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981). When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in 2011 to protest government corruption, they were using postconventional morality. They understood that although their government was legal, it was not morally correct.

Teaching Younger Generations: Political socialization involves one generation passing on political values and norms to the next generation.

2.3 – From Political Values to Ideology

Core American political values general fall in line with one of three political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, or moderate.

2.3.1 – What are American Political Values?

Values represent a society’s shared convictions about what is just and good. Most often, Americans claim to be committed to the core values of individualism and egalitarianism. Core American political values are vested in what is often called the American creed. The creed, which was composed by New York State Commissioner of Education Henry Sterling Chapin in 1918, refers to the belief that the United States government is “by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed. ” The nation consists of sovereign states united as “a perfect Union” based on “the principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity. ”

American exceptionalism is the view that America’s successful development as a nation has contributed to its special place in the world. It is the conviction that the country’s vast frontier has offered boundless and equal opportunities for individuals to achieve their goals. Americans feel strongly that their nation is destined to serve as an example to other countries. They believe that the political and economic systems that have evolved in this country are perfectly suited in principle to permit both individualism and egalitarianism.

Additionally, the American creed also includes patriotism: the love of one’s country and respect for its symbols and principles. The events of 9/11 ignited Americans’ patriotic values, resulting in many public displays of support for the country, its democratic form of government, and authority figures in public-service jobs, such as police and firefighters.

Another core American value is political tolerance, the willingness to allow groups with different ideologies to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, such as free speech. While many people strongly support the ideal of tolerance, they often are unwilling to extend political freedoms to groups they dislike. People acknowledge the constitutional right of racist groups, such as skinheads, to demonstrate in public, but will go to great lengths to prevent them from doing so. Democratic political values are among the cornerstones of the American creed.

Americans believe in the rule of law which explains the idea that government is based on a body of law, agreed on by the governed, and is applied equally and justly. The Constitution is the foundation for the rule of law. The American creed also encompasses the public’s high degree of respect for the American system of government and the structure of its political institutions.

Capitalist economic values are also a part of American values. Capitalist economic systems emphasize the need for a free-enterprise system that allows for open business competition, private ownership of property, and limited government intervention in business affairs. Underlying these capitalist values is the belief that, through hard work and perseverance, anyone can be financially successful. The emphasis on the lone, powerful person implies a distrust of collective action and of power structures such as big government, big business, or big labor. The public is leery of a few large companies having too much concentrated power. The emergence of the Tea Party, a visible grassroots conservative movement that gained momentum during the 2010 midterm elections, illustrates how some Americans become mobilized in opposition to the “tax and spend” policies of big government.

2.3.2 – Translating Political Values to Political Ideologies

Political Ideology Trends: As this chart illustrates, not all Americans agree on which should be the predominant political values and ideologies. Also in this chart, it is evident that people align with different ideologies at different points in time.

While there are various components to fundamental American political values, not all Americans agree on which exactly the most important values should be. People believe that, when making policies, certain values should be emphasized and others deemphasized. People then choose a political ideology that most closely matches their values. These ideologies capture what they believe the scope and purpose of government should be, as well as the balance between individual freedom and collective equality.

Generally, peoples’ values about the scope and purpose of government can be translated into three main political ideologies: liberals, conservatives, and moderates. People who value change and a greater emphasis on collective equality tend to relate to the ideology of liberalism. Liberals support more government intervention to promote economic equality, and believe the government should have more of a say in peoples’ lives.

Equal Justice under Law: The inscription on the front of the United States Supreme Court building reads, “equal justice under law. ” This phrase emphasizes the centrality of the rule of law in American political values.

Contrastingly, people who value tradition and the status quo will relate more to conservatism. Conservatives favor less government intervention (like the Tea Party), and more individual freedom in economic activities (which can subsequently mean a belief in less collective equality). Moderates hold an ideology somewhere in between liberalism and conservatism.

2.4 – Socioeconomic and Racial Demographics

Political socialization experiences differ depending on group membership, such as socioeconomic status, gender, or geography.

2.4.1 – Group Differences in Political Socialization

Political learning and socialization experiences can differ vastly for people depending on the groups with which they associate, such as those based on gender and racial and ethnic background. Certain groups are socialized to a more active role in politics, while others are marginalized.

2.4.2 – Political Socialization and Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status is determined by people’s levels of education, income, and occupation. Wealthier and more highly educated people tend to have more opportunities to be socialized to political values. Consequently, they tend to have more defined political opinions, vote more often, participate more in political activities, and donate more money to causes than poorer or less educated people. Oftentimes, they have been raised by parents who are of the same socioeconomic status, who socialize them to believe in the importance of political participation.

Education has the strongest impact on participation, as it socializes people to the political system. Schools are important agents for political socialization, and as a result, educated people develop the skills that allow them to follow and understand events through the mass media. They are likely to form opinions about political issues and engage in discussions. Schools also prepare people to deal with the bureaucratic aspects of participation, such as registering to vote or organizing a petition drive.

2.4.3 – Political Socialization and Race

People are attracted to groups with similar views. Generally, groups who have experienced historical discrimination or poverty are attracted to more liberal social doctrine. African Americans overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic party, and Latinos also identify with the Democratic party. Asian Americans are more likely to identify with the Republican party. Racial and ethnic groups, like other groups, socialize the members of the group towards different values in politics.

Black and white Americans are about equal in how much time and effort they devote to activities other than voting. However, they differ in the types of activities in which they have been socialized to participate in. Whites are more likely to contact public officials and join political organizations. Black citizens are active in election campaigns and social movements. Latinos tend to participate in other forms of political activity with less frequency than either white or black citizens. Cultural factors contribute to the lower levels of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting; for example, some are recent immigrants who still maintain strong ties to their ethnic culture. These groups have not experienced as much political socialization as other groups.

2.4.4 – Political Socialization and Geographical Region

People are also socialized to accept different political values, ideologies, and parties based on the region of the country in which they grew up or currently live. For example, the southern United States is characterized as more conservative, against organized labor, and typically having less voter turnout. The conservative, agrarian midwestern states tend to vote with these Southern states, in alliance against the more liberal, urban voters on the east and west coasts.

Political Values by Geographic Region: This map of the different party strength in the 2004 Presidential Election (red states voted Republican and blue states voted Democrat) demonstrates the relationship between political socialization and geography.

This red-state blue-state divide can be more accurately explained by looking at urban and rural voting. People who live in large cities tend to vote Democratic, while rural Americans are more likely to vote Republican. County-by-county and district-by-district maps reveal that the “true” nature of geographical division, ideologically, is between urban areas/inner suburbs and suburbs/rural areas. For example, in the 2008 elections, even in “solidly blue” states, the majority of voters in most rural counties voted for Republican John McCain, with some exceptions. In “solidly red” states, a majority of voters in most urban counties voted for Democrat Barack Obama. An even more detailed precinct-by-precinct breakdown demonstrates that in many cases, large cities voted for Obama, but their suburbs were divided.

2.4.5 – Political Socialization and Gender

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of an increasing number of women who has achieved a highly visible political leadership role.

There are significant differences in the way that males and females are socialized to politics. Historically, men have occupied a more central position in American political culture than women. This tradition was institutionalized at the time of the founding, when women did not receive the right to vote in the Constitution. While strides have been made over the past century to achieve political equality between the sexes, differences in sex-role socialization still exist. Traits associated with political leadership, such as being powerful and showing authority, are more often associated with males than females. Girls have fewer opportunities to observe women taking political action, especially as few females hold the highly visible positions, such as member of Congress and cabinet secretary, that are covered by mass media. This is starting to change as women such as Madeleine Albright and now Hillary Clinton attract media attention in their roles as secretary of state or as Nancy Pelosi did as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Despite these developments, women are still socialized to supporting political roles, such as volunteers in political campaigns, rather than leading roles, such as higher-level elected officials. The result is that fewer women than men seek careers in public office beyond the local level.

2.5 – Family, Peers, Church, and School

People that surround a child during his or her childhood are crucial to the child’s development of political values and voting behaviors.

2.5.1 – Family

Family Participation in Politics: Members of the Kennedy family have been prominently involved in politics for over a century, illustrating how the desire to participate in politics can be passed on generationally. Family is an important agent of political socialization.

Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,” others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbors”); and how the world works (what is “real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or your role in helping to raise one, socialization involves teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and ideas.

2.5.2 – School

Most American children spend about seven hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, which makes it hard to deny the importance school has on their socialization (U.S. Department of Education 2004). Students are not only in school to study math, reading, science, and other subjects—the manifest function of this system. Schools also serve a latent function in society by socializing children into behaviors like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks.School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the informal teaching done by schools.

2.5.3 – Peer Group

Importance of Peer Groups: Spending time with peers, such as participating in organized sports, can be an important source of political socialization for young adults.

A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms about taking turns or the rules of a game or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence.

2.5.4 – Religion and Church

While some religions may tend toward being an informal institution, this section focuses on practices related to formal institutions. Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. The United States is full of synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn. Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many of these institutions uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of passage that reinforce the family unit, to power dynamics which reinforce gender roles, religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.

2.6 – The Mass Media

Media can have an important effect on public opinion in several ways.

2.6.1 – Mass Media Effects on Public Opinion

News Media: Increasing exposure to news media has both a positive and negative effects on the formation of political values in young people.

Media can have an important effect on public opinion in several ways.

  1. Setting the news agenda, which shapes the public’s views on what is newsworthy and important
  2. Framing the details of a story
  3. Communicating the social desirability of certain kinds of ideas

The formation of public opinion starts with agenda setting by major media outlets throughout the world. This agenda setting dictates what is newsworthy and how and when it will be reported. The media agenda is set by a variety of different environmental and newswork factors that determines which stories will be newsworthy.

Another key component in the formation of public opinion is framing. Framing is when a story or piece of news is portrayed in a particular way and is meant to sway the consumers attitude one way or the other. Most political issues are heavily framed in order to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate. For example, if Candidate X once voted on a bill that raised income taxes on the middle class, a framing headline would read “Candidate X Doesn’t Care About the Middle Class”. This puts Candidate X in a negative frame to the news reader.

Social desirability is another key component to the formation of public opinion. Social desirability is the idea that people in general will form their opinions based on what they believe is the popular opinion. Based on media agenda setting and media framing, most often a particular opinion gets repeated throughout various news mediums and social networking sites, until it creates a false vision where the perceived truth is actually very far away from the actual truth.

Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people. Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion, though the internet is becoming increasingly important in this realm.

2.7 – Political Leaders and Opinion Makers

An opinion leader is an active media user who interprets the meaning of media messages for those less informed about political events.

2.7.1 – Opinion Leaders

Opinion leadership is a concept that arises out of the theory of two-step flow of communication propounded by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz Significant developers of the theory have been Robert K. Merton, C. Wright Mills and Bernard Berelson. This theory is one of several models that try to explain the diffusion of innovations, ideas, or commercial products.

The opinion leader is the agent who is an active media user and who interprets the meaning of media messages or content for lower-end media users. Typically the opinion leader is held in high esteem by those who accept his or her opinions. Merton distinguishes two types of opinion leadership: monomorphic and polymorphic.

Typically, opinion leadership is viewed as a monomorphic, domain-specific measure of individual differences, that is, a person that is an opinion leader in one field may be a follower in another field. An example of a monomorphic opinion leader in the field of computer technology, might be a neighborhood computer service technician. The technician has access to far more information on this topic than the average consumer and has the requisite background to understand the information, though the same person might be a follower at another field (for example sports) and ask others for advice. In contrast, polymorphic opinion leaders are able to influence others in a broad range of domains. Variants of polymorphic opinion leadership include market mavenism, personality strength and generalized opinion leadership. So far, there is little consensus as to the degree these concept operationalize the same or simply related constructs.

2.7.2 – What Makes and Opinion Leader?

One or more of these factors make noteworthy opinion leaders:

  • expression of values
  • professional competence
  • nature of social network.

Opinion leaders are individuals who obtain more media coverage than others and are especially educated on a certain issue. They seek the acceptance of others and are especially motivated to enhance their social status. In the jargon of public relations, they are called thought leaders.

2.7.3 – Example

Fox News: News stations, such as Fox News, provide opportunities for viewers to hear from opinion leaders.

In a strategic attempt to engage the public in environmental issues and his nonprofit, The Climate Project, Al Gore utilized the concept of opinion leaders. Gore found opinion leaders by recruiting individuals who were educated on environmental issues and saw themselves as influential in their community and amongst their friends and family. From there, he trained the opinion leaders on the information he wanted them to spread and enabled them to influence their communities. By using opinion leaders, Gore was able to educate and influence many Americans to take notice of climate change and change their actions.


[LEFT]: Opinion Leaders: Opinion leaders, such as Stephen Colbert, often shape public opinion. People are inclined to follow opinion leaders because of their knowledge and experience.
[RIGHT]: Celebrities as Opinion Leaders: George Clooney is an example of a celebrity opinion leader. His advocacy for issues in Africa and the Sudan has made him an opinion leader for many people.

2.8 – Major Life and Political Events

Political socialization takes place throughout the life cycle, but major life or political events can also impact political values.

2.8.1 – Sources of Political Socialization

Parents appear to be a primary source of political socialization and partisanship. Much of the theoretical basis for this hypothesis emerged from the fields of child psychology and social learning, which studied the ways in which children are socialized and values inculcated in them. Studies of political partisanship have found that partisanship is strongest when both parents have the same political loyalties, these loyalties are strong, both parents have similarly strong party loyalties, and parental partisanship accords with socio-economic status (for example, the wealthy are Republicans or the poor are Labour supporters).

Social groups are another source of partisanship. Friends, relatives, and neighbors often have the same partisan loyalties and strengths as one’s parents. The more homogeneous the social group, the more likely the individual will be to develop strong partisan loyalties. When social group homogeneousness is low, the individual is likely to be less strongly socialized into partisan politics and more likely to seek a different party loyalty (whether by disengaging from partisanship or switching partisan loyalties).

Political socialization takes place throughout the course of a person’s life. However, certain major life and political events can interrupt the normal progression of political socialization, causing a person to change his or her opinion and accept other political values and ideologies.

Initially, studies indicated that the most important factor in forming political values was the life cycle. That is, a person’s attachment to a specific political ideology naturally grew stronger over time, as weak socialization became strong and strong socialization became stronger. Additionally, theorists suggested that older voters favored certain policy preferences (such as strong government pensions and old-age health insurance) which led them to favor one party over another.

2.8.2 – Impact of Major Life Events

September 11, 2001: Major historical or political events, such as September 11th, can impact the political socialization and the formation of political values for an entire generation.

Later studies have shown that the initial strong effect of the life cycle variable was mitigated by generational effects. Party identification seemed strongly affected by certain formative generational events, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression or the social upheaval of the 1960s. Several studies concluded that generational effects (major life events) were distinct from life cycle effects, and that both were significant factors in creating (or not creating) partisanship.

Conceding that major “shocks” such as the Great Depression could realign or dealign partisanship, some scholars reasoned that a series of smaller shocks over time could also dramatically influence the direction and strength of partisanship. Many scholars became convinced that partisanship was not bedrock, but shifting sand. Important childhood events, such as becoming aware of a presidential campaign, as well as events in adulthood (such as recessions, war, or shifting racial policies) could also affect one’s level of partisanship.

2.9 – Political Knowledge

Political knowledge, in addition to political socialization and major events, impact the formation of people’s political values and opinions.

2.9.1 – Forming Opinions through Knowledge

Political Knowledge: Some people are that political values are formed as a result of political knowledge. Researching two political candidates, as illustrated in this flyer, help increase political knowledge.

While it is known that agents of political socialization (such as family, peers, church, and school) and major life and political events impact political values and public opinion, some argue that political knowledge plays a large role as well.

In this view, public opinion is formed and shaped when people investigate and research politics, and are consequently able to form their own opinions. How much people know about their government and their leaders, where they receive their information, the quality and impartiality of the sources they used, all impact the formation of their political values and opinions.

2.9.2 – Forming Opinions without Knowledge

The formation of public opinion assumes that Americans know enough about political issues to shape opinions based on political knowledge. However, certain statistics demonstrate that many Americans lack this basic knowledge about politics. Many people cannot identify important political figures or are misinformed about important political issues, such as how much foreign aid the United States donates or what is actually written in the Constitution.

This type of voter ignorance is due to the fact that, oftentimes, the cost of investigating political issues and forming opinions outweighs the benefits. This theory, called “rational ignorance,” effects the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people and can be seen in general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.

3 – Measure Public Opinion

3.1 – Constructing Public Opinion Surveys

3.1.1 – Introduction

Voter Poll: Voter polling questionnaire on display at the Smithsonian Institution

An opinion poll, sometimes simply referred to as a “poll,” is a survey of public opinion from a particular sample. Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by conducting a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities in ratio or within confidence intervals.

3.1.2 – Modes of Data Collection

There are several ways of administering a survey. The choice between administration modes is influenced by: 1) cost, 2) coverage of target population, 3) flexibility of asking questions, 4) respondents’ willingness to participate, and 5) response accuracy. Different methods create mode effects that change how respondents answer. The most common modes of administration are:

  • Telephone
  • Mail
  • Online surveys
  • Personal in-home surveys
  • Personal mall or street intercept surveys
  • Hybrids of the above.

3.1.3 – Response Formats

Usually, a survey consists of a number of questions the respondent answers in a set format. A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question asks the respondent to formulate his or her own answer, while closed-ended questions have the respondent choose an answer from a given number of options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. The four types of response scales for closed-ended questions are:

  • Dichotomous: The respondent has two options.
  • Nominal-polytomous: The respondent has more than two unordered options.
  • Ordinal-polytomous: The respondent has more than two ordered options.
  • (Bounded) Continuous: The respondent is presented with a continuous scale.

A respondent’s answer to an open-ended question can be coded into a response scale afterwards or analyzed using more qualitative methods.

3.1.4 – Survey Methodology

The most important aspects of a survey include:

  • Identifying and selecting potential sample members.
  • Contacting individuals and collecting data from those who are hard to reach (or reluctant to respond).
  • Evaluating and testing questions.
  • Selecting the mode for posing questions and collecting responses.
  • Training and supervising interviewers.
  • Checking data files for accuracy and internal consistency.
  • Adjusting survey estimates to correct for identified errors.

3.1.5 – Advantages

  • They are relatively easy to administer.
  • Can be developed in less time compared with other data-collection methods.
  • Can be cost-effective.
  • Few “experts” are required to develop a survey, which may well increase the reliability of the survey data.
  • If conducted remotely, can reduce or obviate geographical dependence.
  • Useful in describing the characteristics of a large population assuming the sampling is valid.
  • Can be administered remotely via the Web, mail, e-mail, telephone, etc.
  • Efficient at collecting information from a large number of respondents.
  • Statistical techniques can be applied to the survey data to determine validity, reliability, and statistical significance, even when analyzing multiple variables.
  • Many questions can be asked about a given topic, giving considerable flexibility to the analysis.
  • A wide range of information can be collected (e.g., attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior).
  • Because they are standardized, they are relatively free from several types of errors.

3.1.6 – Disadvantages

The reliability of survey data may depend on the following:

  • Respondents’ motivation, honesty, memory, and ability to respond:
  • Structured surveys, particularly those with closed-ended questions, may have low validity when researching effective variables.
  • Self-selection bias: Although the individuals chosen to participate in surveys are often randomly sampled, errors due to non-responses may exist. Some prospective respondents may simply be less likely to respond to polls generally, not interested in the subject, or may be unreachable for many reasons. For example, polls or surveys that are conducted by calling a random sample of publicly available telephone numbers will not include the responses of people with unlisted telephone numbers, cell phone numbers, who are unable to answer the phone, and who do not answer calls from unknown/unfamiliar telephone numbers.
  • Question design: Survey question answer-choices could lead to vague data sets because, at times, they are relative only to a personal abstract notion concerning “strength of choice”. For instance, the choice “moderately agree” may mean different things to different subjects and anyone interpreting the data for correlation. Even “yes” or “no” answers are problematic because subjects may for instance put “no” if the choice “only once” is not available.

3.1.7 – Non-Response Reduction

The following ways have been recommended for reducing non-response in telephone and face-to-face surveys:

  • Advance letter: A short letter sent in advance to inform the sampled respondents about the upcoming survey.
  • Training: The interviewers are thoroughly trained in how to ask respondents questions, work with computers and make schedules for callbacks to respondents who were not reached.
  • Short introduction: The interviewer gives the basic information on him/herself and the survey.
  • Respondent-friendly survey questionnaire: Questions must be clear, non-offensive, and easy to respond to.

3.2 – Early Public Opinion Research and Polling

The first known example of an opinion poll was a local straw poll conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian in 1824, showing Andrew Jackson leading John Quincy Adams by 335 votes to 169 in the contest for the United States Presidency. Since Jackson won the popular vote in the full election, such straw votes gradually became more popular, but they remained local, usually city-wide, phenomena.

In 1916, the Literary Digest embarked on a national survey, partly as a circulation-raising exercise, and correctly predicted Woodrow Wilson’s election as president. Mailing out millions of postcards and simply counting the returns, the Digest correctly predicted the victories of Warren Harding in 1920, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Herbert Hoover in 1929, and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

In 1936, its 2.3 million “voters” constituted a huge sample; however, they were generally more affluent Americans who tended to have Republican sympathies. The Literary Digest was ignorant of this new bias. The week before Election Day, it reported that Alf Landon was far more popular than Roosevelt. At the same time, George Gallup conducted a far smaller, but more scientifically based survey, in which he polled a demographically representative sample. Gallup correctly predicted Roosevelt’s landslide victory. The Literary Digestsoon went out of business, while polling started to take off.

George Gallup: George H. Gallup was the founder of the Gallup Poll.

Elmo Roper was another American pioneer in political forecasting using scientific polls. He predicted the reelection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt three times, in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Louis Harris had been in the field of public opinion since 1947 when he joined the Elmo Roper firm, then later became partner.

Gallup launched a subsidiary in the United Kingdom, where it almost alone correctly predicted Labour’s victory in the 1945 general election. This contrasted with virtually all other commentators, who expected a victory for the Conservative Party led by Winston Churchill.

By the 1950s, various types of polling had spread to most democracies.

3.3 – The Gallup Organization

Gallup Inc. was founded in 1958, when George Gallup grouped all of his polling operations into one organization.

3.3.1 – Introduction

Founded by George Gallup, Gallup, Inc. is primarily a research-based, performance-management consulting company. Some of Gallup’s key practice areas are – employee engagement, customer engagement, and well-being. Gallup has more than 40 offices in 27 countries. World headquarters are in Washington, D.C. Operational headquarters are in Omaha, Nebraska.

Gallup currently has four divisions: Gallup Poll, Gallup Consulting, Gallup University, and Gallup Press.

3.3.2 – History

Gallup Inc. was founded in 1958, when George Gallup grouped all of his polling operations into one organization. After Gallup’s death in 1984, The Gallup Organization was sold to Selection Research, Incorporated (SRI) of Lincoln, Nebraska in 1988. George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, the precursor of The Gallup Organization, in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1935. He wished to objectively determine the opinions held by the general public. To ensure his independence and objectivity, Dr. Gallup resolved that he would undertake no polling that was paid for or sponsored in any way by special interest groups such as the Republican and Democratic parties, a commitment that Gallup upholds to this day.

In 1936 Gallup successfully predicted that Franklin Roosevelt would defeat Alfred Landon for the U.S. presidency; this event quickly popularized the company. In 1938 Dr. Gallup and Gallup Vice President David Ogilvy began conducting market research for advertising companies and the film industry. In 1958 the modern Gallup Organization was formed from a merger of several polling organizations. Since then, Gallup has seen huge expansion into several other areas.

Gallup died on November 21, 2011.

3.3.3 – Gallup Poll

The Gallup Poll is the division of Gallup that regularly conducts public opinion polls in more than 140 countries around the world. Gallup Polls are often referenced in the mass media as a reliable and objective measurement of public opinion. Gallup Poll results, analyses, and videos are published daily on in the form of data-driven news.

Historically, the Gallup Poll has measured and tracked the public’s attitudes concerning virtually every political, social, and economic issue of the day, including highly sensitive or controversial subjects. In 2005, Gallup began its World Poll, which continually surveys citizens in more than 140 countries, representing 95% of the world’s adult population. General and regional-specific questions, developed in collaboration with the world’s leading behavioral economists, are organized into powerful indexes and topic areas that correlate with real-world outcomes.

Gallup Polls are best known for their accuracy in predicting the outcome of United States presidential elections. Notable exceptions include the 1948 Thomas Dewey-Harry S. Truman election, where nearly all pollsters predicted a Dewey victory. The Gallup Poll also inaccurately projected a slim victory by Gerald Ford in 1976, where he lost to Jimmy Carter by a small margin. For the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Gallup was rated 17th out of 23 polling organizations in terms of the precision of its pre-election polls relative to the final results.

In 2008, Gallup interviewed no fewer than 1,000 U.S. adults each day, providing the most watched daily tracking poll of the race between John McCain and Barack Obama.Gallup also conducts 1,000 interviews per day, 350 days out of the year, among both landline and cell phones across the U.S. for its health and well-being survey.

3.4 – The National Election Studies

The American National Election Studies (ANES) is the leading academically run national survey of voters in the United States.

The American Voter: An image of the publication that was influenced by early ANES data.

The American National Election Studies (ANES) is the leading academically-run national survey of voters in the United States, conducted before and after every presidential election. Though the ANES was formally established by a National Science Foundation grant in 1977, the data are a continuation of studies going back to 1948. The study has been based at the University of Michigan since its origin and, since 2005, has been run in partnership with Stanford University. Its principal investigators for the first four years of the partnership were Arthur Lupia and Jon Krosnick. Its current principal investigators are Vincent Hutchings, Gary Segura, and Simon Jackman.

The consistency of the studies, which includes asking the same questions repeatedly over time, makes it very useful for academic research. As a result it is frequently cited in works of political science. Early ANES data were the basis for The American Voter a seminal study of voting behavior in the United States, by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes, colleagues at the University of Michigan. Based on one of the first comprehensive studies of election survey data (what eventually became the National Election Studies), came the conclusion that most voters cast their ballots primarily on the basis of partisan identification (which is often simply inherited from their parents), and that independent voters are actually the least involved in and attentive to politics.

Today, ANES data are used by numerous scholars, students, and journalists. It is widely considered the “gold standard” of election studies.

The ANES also has a long history of innovation. In 2006, it opened the ANES Online Commons, becoming the first large-scale academic survey to allow interested scholars and survey professionals to propose questions for future ANES surveys.

3.5 – Types of Polls

The main types of polls are: opinion, benchmark, bushfire, entrance, exit, deliberative opinion, tracking, and the straw poll.

Poling Station: A polling place in New Jersey during the United States presidential election, 2008

  • An opinion poll is a survey of public opinion from a particular sample. Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a population by asking a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities from responses in ratio or within confidence intervals.
  • A benchmark poll is generally the first poll taken in a campaign. It is often taken before a candidate announces his or her bid for office, but sometimes it occurs immediately following the announcement, allowing some opportunity to raise funds. This poll is generally a short and simple survey of likely voters.
  • Brushfire polls are polls taken during the period between the benchmark and tracking polls. The number of brushfire polls taken by a campaign is determined by how competitive the race is and how much money the campaign has to spend. These polls usually focus on likely voters and the length of the survey varies on the number of messages being tested.
  • A tracking poll is a poll repeated at intervals generally averaged over a trailing window. A weekly tracking poll uses the data from the past week and discards older data.
  • An entrance poll is a poll that is taken before voters cast their votes. It is akin to an opinion poll in the sense that it asks who the voter plans to vote for and other similar questions. The possibility that the prospective voter might change his or her mind after the poll is very small compared to that of an opinion poll; therefore, the margin of error of an entrance poll is expected to be lower than that of an opinion poll.
  • An exit poll is taken immediately after the voters have exited the polling stations. Pollsters —usually private companies working for newspapers or broadcasters—conduct exit polls to gain an early indication as to how an election has turned out, since in many elections the actual result may take hours or even days to count. Exit polls have historically and throughout the world been used as a check against and rough indicator of the degree of election fraud. Like all opinion polls, exit polls by nature do include a margin of error. A famous example of exit poll error occurred in the 1992 UK General Election, when two exit polls predicted a hung parliament. Widespread criticism of exit polling has occurred in cases, especially in the United States, where exit-poll results have appeared and/or have provided a basis for projecting winners before all real polls have closed, thereby possibly influencing election results
  • The deliberative opinion poll is a form of opinion poll that incorporates the principles of deliberative democracy. In the deliberative opinion poll, a statistically representative sample of a community is gathered to discuss an issue in conditions that further deliberation. The group is then polled, and the results of the poll and the actual deliberation can be used both as a recommending force and, in certain circumstances, to replace a vote. Rather than simply determining existing public opinion, a deliberative poll aims to understand what public opinion would be if the public were well-informed and had carefully discussed a particular issue. Citizens are invited by modern random sampling techniques to participate; a large enough sampling group will provide a relatively accurate representation of public opinion.
  • A push poll is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll. In a push poll, large numbers of respondents are contacted and little or no effort is made to collect and analyze response data. Instead, the push poll is a form of telemarketing-based propaganda masquerading as a poll and is generally viewed as a form of negative campaigning. This tactic is commonly considered to undermine the democratic process since false or misleading information is often provided about candidates. Push polling has been condemned by the American Association of Political Consultants and the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The term is also used in a broader sense to refer to legitimate polls that aim to test political messages, some of which may be negative. In all such polls, the pollster asks leading or suggestive questions that “push” the interviewee towards adopting an unfavorable response towards the political candidate.
  • A straw poll or straw vote is a poll with nonbinding results. Straw polls provide dialogue among movements within large groups. In meetings subject to rules of order, impromptu straw polls often are taken to see if there is enough support for an idea to devote more meeting time to it, and (when not a secret ballot) for the attendees to see who is on which side of a question.

3.6 – Conducting Polls

Steps to conduct a poll effectively including identifying a sample, evaluating poll questions, and selecting a question and response mode.

3.6.1 – Introduction

Generally, in order to conduct a poll, the survey methodologist must do the following:

Questionnaire: This is an example of a questionnaire.

  • Identify and select potential sample members
  • Contact sampled individuals and collect data from those who are difficult to reach
  • Evaluate and test questions
  • Select the mode for posing questions and collecting responses
  • Train and supervise interviewers
  • Check data files for accuracy and internal consistency
  • Adjust survey estimates to correct for identified errors

Survey samples can be broadly divided into two types: probability samples and non-probability samples. Stratified sampling is a method of probability sampling such that sub-populations within an overall population are identified and included in the sample.

Usually, a poll consists of a number of questions that the respondent answers in a set format. A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question asks the respondent to formulate his or her own answer; a closed-ended question asks the respondent to pick an answer from a given number of options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Four types of response scales for closed-ended questions are as follows:

  • Dichotomous: the respondent has two options
  • Nominal-polytomous: the respondent has more than two unordered options
  • Ordinal-polytomous: the respondent has more than two ordered options
  • (bounded) Continuous: the respondent is presented with a continuous scale

A respondent’s answer to an open-ended question can be coded into a response scale or analyzed using more qualitative methods.

A questionnaire is a series of questions asked to individuals to obtain statistically useful information about a given topic. When properly constructed and responsibly administered, questionnaires become a vital instrument for polling a population.

Adequate questionnaire construction is critical to the success of a poll. Inappropriate questions, incorrect ordering of questions, incorrect scaling, or bad questionnaire format can make the survey valueless, as it may not accurately reflect the views and opinions of the participants. Pretesting among a smaller subset of target respondents is useful method of checking a questionnaire and making sure it accurately captures the intended information.

3.6.2 – Questionnaire Construction Issues

The topics should fit the respondents’ frame of reference. Their background may affect their interpretation of the questions. Respondents should have enough information or expertise to answer the questions truthfully.

The type of scale, index, or typology to be used is determined. The level of measurement used determines what can be concluded from the data. If the response option is yes/no then you will only know how many, or what percent, of your sample answered yes/no. You cannot, however, conclude what the average respondent answered.

The types of questions (closed, multiple-choice, open) should fit the statistical data analysis techniques available and the goals of the poll. Questions and prepared responses should be unbiased and neutral as to intended outcome. The order or “natural” grouping of questions is often relevant. Prior previous questions may bias later questions. Also, the wording should be kept simple: no technical or specialized vocabulary. The meaning should be clear. Ambiguous words, equivocal sentence structures and negatives may cause misunderstanding, possibly invalidating questionnaire results. Care should be taken to ask one question at a time. The list of possible responses should be collectively exhaustive. Respondents should not find themselves without category that fits them. Additionally, possible responses should be mutually exclusive; categories should not overlap. Writing style should be conversational, concise, accurate and appropriate to the target audience. “Loaded” questions evoke emotional responses and may skew results.

Many respondents will not answer personal or intimate questions. For this reason, questions about age, income, marital status, etc., are generally placed at the end of the survey. Thus, if the respondent refuses to answer these questions, the research questions will have already been answered.

Presentation of the questions on the page (or computer screen) and the use of graphics may affect a respondent’s interest or distract from the questions.

Finally, questionnaires can be administered by research staff, by volunteers or self-administered by the respondents. Clear, detailed instructions are needed in either case, matching the needs of each audience.

3.6.3 – Question Sequence

Some further considerations about questionnaires are the following.

Questions should flow logically from one to the next, from the more general to the more specific, from the least sensitive to the most sensitive, from factual and behavioral questions to attitudinal and opinion questions, from unaided to aided questions.

Finally, according to the three stage theory, or the sandwich theory, initial questions should be screening and rapport questions. The second stage should concern the product specific questions. In the last stage demographic questions are asked.

3.7 – Analyzing Data

3.7.1 – Introduction

A very important tool in data analysis is the margin of error because it indicates how closely the results of the survey reflect reality.

Margin of Error: This normal distribution curve illustrates the points of various margin of errors.

The margin of error is a statistic used to analyze data. It expresses the amount of random sampling error in a survey’s results. The larger the margin of error, the less faith one should have that the poll’s reported results are close to the “true” figures—the figures for the whole population.

3.7.2 – Explanation

The margin of error is usually defined as the “radius” of a confidence interval for a particular statistic from a survey. When a single, global margin of error is reported for a survey, it refers to the maximum margin of error for all reported percentages using the full sample from the survey. If the statistic is a percentage, this maximum margin of error can be calculated as the radius of the confidence interval for a reported percentage of 50%.

The margin of error can be described as an “absolute” quantity. For example, if the true value is 50 percentage points, and the statistic has a confidence interval radius of 5 percentage points, then we say the margin of error is 5 percentage points.

However, the margin of error can also be expressed as a “relative” quantity. For example, suppose the true value is 50 people and the statistic has a confidence interval radius of 5 people. If we use the “relative” definition, then we express this absolute margin of error as a percent of the true value. Therefore, the absolute margin of error is 5 people, but the “percent relative” margin of error is 10% (because 5 people are ten percent of 50 people).

The margin of error can be defined for any desired confidence level, but usually a level of 90%, 95%, or 99% is chosen. This level is the probability that a margin of error around the reported percentage would include the “true” percentage. The confidence level, the sample design for a survey, and in particular its sample size, determines the magnitude of the margin of error. A larger sample size produces a smaller margin of error, all else remaining equal.

If the exact confidence intervals are used the margin of error takes into account both sampling error and non-sampling error. If an approximate confidence interval is used then the margin of error may only take random sampling error into account. It does not represent other potential sources of error or bias such as a non-representative sample-design, poorly phrased questions, people lying or refusing to respond, the exclusion of people who could not be contacted, or miscounts and miscalculations.

3.7.3 – Basic Concept

Polls typically involve taking a sample from a certain population. In the case of the Newsweek 2004 Presidential Election poll, the population of interest was the population of people who would vote. Sampling theory provides methods for calculating the probability that the poll results differ from reality by more than a certain amount simply due to chance. For example, if the poll reports 47% for Kerry, his support could actually be as high as 50% or as low as 44%. The more people that are sampled, the more confident pollsters can be that the “true” percentage is close to the observed percentage. The margin of error is a measure of how close the results are likely to be.

3.7.4 – Effect of Population Size

The margin of error for a particular sampling method is essentially the same regardless of whether the population of interest is the size of a school, city, state, or country, as long as the sampling fraction is less than 5%.

In cases where the sampling fraction exceeds 5%, analysts can adjust the margin of error using a “finite population correction” (FPC) to account for the added precision gained by sampling a larger percentage of the population.

The FPC, factored into the calculation of the margin of error, has the effect of narrowing the margin of error. It holds that the FPC approaches zero as the sample size approaches the population size, which has the effect of eliminating the margin of error entirely.

3.7.5 – Comparing Percentages

The terms “statistical tie” and “statistical dead heat” are sometimes used to describe reported percentages that differ by less than a margin of error, but these terms can be misleading. For one thing, the margin of error as generally calculated is applicable to an individual percentage and not the difference between percentages. The difference between two percentage estimates may not be statistically significant even when they differ by more than the reported margin of error. The survey results also usually provide strong information even when there is not a statistically significant difference.

3.8 – Sampling Techniques

Sampling is concerned with choosing a subset of individuals from a statistical population to estimate characteristics of a whole population.

3.8.1 – Introduction

Normal Distribution Curve: The normal distribution curve can help indicate if the results of a survey are significant and what the margin of error may be.

In statistics and survey methodology, sampling is concerned with the selection of a subset of individuals from within a statistical population to estimate characteristics of the whole population. The three main advantages of sampling are that the cost is lower, data collection is faster, and the accuracy and quality of the data can be easily improved.

3.8.2 – Simple Random Sampling

In a simple random sample (SRS) of a given size, all such subsets of the frame are given an equal probability. Each element has an equal probability of selection. Furthermore, any given pair of elements has the same chance of selection as any other pair. This minimizes bias and simplifies analysis of results. In particular, the variance between individual results within the sample is a good indicator of variance in the overall population, which makes it relatively easy to estimate the accuracy of results.

However, SRS can be vulnerable to sampling error because the randomness of the selection may result in a sample that doesn’t reflect the makeup of the population.

3.8.3 – Systematic Sampling

Systematic sampling relies on arranging the target population according to some ordering scheme, a random start, and then selecting elements at regular intervals through that ordered list. As long as the starting point is randomized, systematic sampling is a type of probability sampling. It is easy to implement and the stratification can make it efficient, if the variable by which the list is ordered is correlated with the variable of interest.

However, if periodicity is present and the period is a multiple or factor of the interval used, the sample is especially likely to be unrepresentative of the overall population, decreasing its accuracy. Another drawback of systematic sampling is that even in scenarios where it is more accurate than SRS, its theoretical properties make it difficult to quantify that accuracy. As described above, systematic sampling is an EPS method, because all elements have the same probability of selection.

3.8.4 – Stratified Sampling

Where the population embraces many distinct categories, the frame can be organized by these categories into separate “strata. ” Each stratum is then sampled as an independent sub-population, out of which individual elements can be randomly selected. In this way, researchers can draw inferences about specific subgroups that may be lost in a more generalized random sample. Additionally, since each stratum is treated as an independent population, different sampling approaches can be applied to different strata, potentially enabling researchers to use the approach best suited for each identified subgroup. Stratified sampling can increase the cost and complicate the research design.

3.8.5 – Probability-Proportional-to-Size Sampling

Probability-proportional-to-size (PPS) is sampling in which the selection probability for each element is set to be proportional to its size measure, up to a maximum of 1.The PPS approach can improve accuracy for a given sample size by concentrating the sample on large elements that have the greatest impact on population estimates. PPS sampling is commonly used for surveys of businesses, where element size varies greatly and auxiliary information is often available.

3.8.6 – Cluster Sampling

Sometimes it is more cost-effective to select respondents in groups (“clusters”). Sampling is often clustered by geography or by time periods. Clustering can reduce travel and administrative costs. It also means that one does not need a sampling frame listing all elements in the target population. Instead, clusters can be chosen from a cluster-level frame, with an element-level frame created only for the selected clusters.

Cluster sampling generally increases the variability of sample estimates above that of simple random sampling, depending on how the clusters differ between themselves, as compared with the within-cluster variation.

3.8.7 – Quota Sampling

In quota sampling, the population is first segmented into mutually exclusive subgroups, just as in stratified sampling. Then judgment is used to select the subjects or units from each segment based on a specified proportion. For example, an interviewer may be told to sample 200 females and 300 males between the age of 45 and 60. In quota sampling the selection of the sample is non-random. The problem is that these samples may be biased because not everyone gets a chance of selection.

3.8.8 – Accidental Sampling

Accidental sampling (or grab, convenience, or opportunity sampling) is a type of non-probability sampling which involves the sample being drawn from that part of the population which is close to hand. The researcher cannot scientifically make generalizations about the total population from this sample because it would not be representative enough.

3.8.9 – Panel Sampling

Panel sampling is the method of first selecting a group of participants through a random sampling method and then asking that group for the same information again several times over a period of time. This longitudinal sampling-method allows estimates of changes in the population.

3.9 – The Importance of Accuracy

Polling organization will lose credibility if they publish inaccurate results.

3.9.1 – Introduction

The Literary Digest: The Literary Digest conducted the first national poll.

The importance of accuracy may be illustrated through the example of the Literary Digest Roosevelt-Landon presidential election poll. After correctly predicting the victories of Warren Harding in 1920, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Herbert Hoover in 1929, and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the Literary Digesthad established itself as a well-known and well-respected publication. One reason for their previous successes was the use of a very large sample population.

In 1936, the Digest conducted their presidential poll with 2.3 million voters, a huge sample size. However, the sample turned out to be an inaccurate representation of the general population as those polled were generally more affluent Americans who tended to have Republican sympathies. The Literary Digest was ignorant of this new bias. The week before Election Day, it reported that Alf Landon was far more popular than Roosevelt. At the same time, George Gallup conducted a far smaller, but more scientifically based survey, in which he polled a more demographically representative sample. Gallup correctly predicted Roosevelt’s landslide victory. The Literary Digest lost its reputation for accuracy and the trust of the readers and soon went out of business.

3.9.2 – Maintaining Polling Accuracy

Relevance of the survey information, quality of the data, and overcoming personal bias are integral to polling accuracy.

When releasing information, data and official statistics should be relevant to the needs of users as well as both public and private sector decision makers. The quality of results must be assessed prior to release. If errors in the results occur before or after the data revision, they should be corrected and users should be informed as quickly as possible. Finally, when social scientists speak of “good research,” the focus is on how the research is done–whether the research is methodologically sound–rather than on whether the results of the research are consistent with personal biases or preconceptions.

Glenn Firebaugh summarizes the principles for good research in his book Seven Rules for Social Research. He states that “there should be the possibility of surprise in social research. ” In other words, it is imperative that the researchers look past their preconceived notions or desires to conduct a study that reflects whatever the reality may be. Additionally, good research will “look for differences that make a difference” and “build in reality checks. ” Researchers are also advised to replicate their polls, that is, “to see if identical analyses yield similar results for different samples of people. ” The next two rules urge researchers to “compare like with like” and to “study change;” these two rules are especially important when researchers want to estimate the effect of one variable on another. The final rule, “let method be the servant, not the master,” reminds researchers that methods are the means, not the end, of social research; it is critical from the outset to fit the research design to the research issue, rather than the other way around.

3.10 – The Problems with Polls

Problems with polls typically stem either from issues with the methodology that bias the sample or the responses that cause the bias.

3.10.1 – Potential for Inaccuracy

In practice, pollsters need to balance the cost of a large sample with the reduction in sampling error. A sample size of around 500 – 1,000 is a typical compromise for political polls. Another way to reduce the margin of error is to rely on poll averages. This method is based on the assumption that the procedure and sample size is similar enough between many different polls to justify creating a polling average.

Venn Diagram: A Subset B: This Venn diagram illustrates the sample population within the larger, general population.

Another source of error stems from faulty demographic models by pollsters who weigh their samples by particular variables such as party identification in an election. For example, one could assume that the breakdown of the US population by party identification has not changed since the previous presidential election. As a result, one would underestimate a victory or a defeat of a particular party candidate that saw a surge or decline in its party registration relative to the previous presidential election cycle.

3.10.2 – Theories on Erroneous Polling Results

A number of theories and mechanisms have been offered to explain erroneous polling results. Some of these reflect errors on the part of the pollsters; many of them are statistical in nature. Others blame the respondents for not giving candid answers (the controversial Bradley effect & Shy Tory Factor).

3.10.3 – Non-Response Bias

Since some people do not answer calls from strangers or refuse to answer the poll, poll samples may not be representative samples from a population due to a non-response bias. Because of this selection bias, the characteristics of those who agree to be interviewed may be markedly different from those who decline. That is, the actual sample is a biased version of the universe the pollster wants to analyze. In these cases, bias introduces new errors, in addition to errors caused by sample size. Error due to bias does not become smaller with larger sample sizes–taking a larger sample size simply repeats the same mistake on a larger scale.

3.10.4 – Response Bias

Surveys may be affected by response bias, where the answers given by respondents do not reflect their true beliefs. This may be deliberately engineered by unscrupulous pollsters in order to generate a certain result or please their clients, but more often is a result of the detailed wording or ordering of questions. Respondents may deliberately try to manipulate the outcome of a poll by advocating a more extreme position than they actually hold in order to boost their side of the argument or give rapid and ill-considered answers in order to hasten the end of their questioning. Respondents may also feel under social pressure not to give an unpopular answer. In American political parlance, this phenomenon is often referred to as the Bradley effect. If the results of surveys are widely publicized this effect may be magnified in a phenomenon commonly referred to as the spiral of silence.

3.10.5 – Wording of Questions

It is well established that the wording of the questions, the order in which they are asked, and the number and form of alternative answers offered can influence results of polls. For instance, the public is more likely to indicate support for a person who is described by the operator as one of the “leading candidates. ”

A common technique to control for this bias is to rotate the order in which questions are asked. Many pollsters also split-sample in that one of two different versions of a question are presented to half the respondents.

3.10.6 – Coverage Bias

Another source of error is the use of samples that are not representative of the population as a consequence of the polling methodology. For example, telephone sampling has a built-in error because in many times and places, those with telephones have generally been richer than those without.

3.10.7 – Selection Bias

Selection bias occurs when some units have a differing probability of selection that is unaccounted for by the researcher. For example, some households have multiple phone numbers making them more likely to be selected in a telephone survey than households with only one phone number.

In statistics, self-selection bias arises in any situation in which individuals select themselves into a group, causing a biased sample with non-probability sampling. It is commonly used to describe situations where the characteristics of the people which cause them to select themselves in the group create abnormal or undesirable conditions in the group.

There may be a purposeful intent on the part of respondents leading to self-selection bias whereas other types of selection bias may arise more inadvertently, possibly as the result of mistakes by those designing any given study.

3.11 – Telephone and Internet Polling

Internet and telephone polls are very useful as they are much cheaper than most other polls and are able to reach a wide population.  Online polls are becoming an essential research tool for a variety of research fields, including marketing and official statistics research.

3.11.1 – Advantages of Internet Surveys

Web polls are faster, simpler, and cheaper than many other polling methods. However, lower costs are not so straightforward in practice, as they are strongly interconnected to errors. Because response rate comparisons to other survey modes are usually not favorable for online surveys, efforts to achieve a higher response rate may substantially increase costs. Additionally, the entire data collection period is significantly shortened, as all data can be collected and processed in typically little more than a month.

Interaction between the respondent and the questionnaire is also more dynamic compared to e-mail or paper surveys. Online surveys are also less intrusive, and they suffer less from social desirability effects. Questions with long lists of answer choices can be used to provide immediate coding of answers to certain questions that are usually asked in an open-ended fashion in paper questionnaires. Finally, online surveys can be tailored to the situation (the questionnaire may be preloaded with already available information).

3.11.2 – Methodological Issues of Online Surveys – Sampling

The difference between probability samples (where the inclusion probabilities for all units of the target population is known in advance) and non-probability samples (which often require less time and effort but generally do not support statistical inference) is crucial. Probability samples are highly affected by problems of non-coverage (not all members of the general population have Internet access) and frame problems (online survey invitations are most conveniently distributed using e-mail, but there are no e-mail directories of the general population that might be used as a sampling frame). Because coverage and frame problems can significantly impact data quality, they should be adequately reported when disseminating the research results. – Invitations to Online Surveys

Due to the lack of sampling frames, many online survey invitations are published in the form of an URL link on web sites or in other media, which leads to sample selection bias that is out of research control and to non-probability samples. Traditional solicitation modes, such as telephone or mail invitations to web surveys, can help overcoming probability sampling issues in online surveys. However, such approaches are faced with problems of dramatically higher costs and questionable effectiveness. – Non-Response

Online survey response rates are generally low and also vary extremely. In addition to refusing participation, terminating surveying during the process, or not answering certain questions, several other non-response patterns can be observed in online surveys, such as lurking respondents and a combination of partial and item non-response. Response rates can be increased by offering monetary or some other type of incentive to the respondents, by contacting respondents several times, and by keeping the questionnaire difficulty as low as possible. – Questionnaire Design

The use of design features should be limited to the extent necessary for respondents to understand questions or to stimulate the response. The features should not affect their response as that would mean lower validity and reliability of data.

It is important that uncontrolled variations in how a questionnaire appears are minimized. Web-based survey methods make the construction and delivery of questionnaire instruments relatively easy, but what is difficult to ensure is that everyone sees the questionnaire as its designer intended it to be. This problem can arise due to the variability of software and hardware used by respondents.

3.11.3 – Telephone Polling

An important aspect of telephone polling is the use of interviewers. Interviewers encourage sample persons to respond, leading to higher response rates and interviewers may increase comprehension of questions by answering respondents’ questions.

Telephone polling is also fairly cost efficient, depending on local call charge structure, which makes it good for large national (or international) sampling frames.

However, there are some disadvantages to telephone polling. For instance, there is some potential for interviewer bias (e.g. some people may be more willing to discuss a sensitive issue with a female interviewer than with a male one), telephone polling cannot be used for non-audio information (graphics, demonstrations, taste/smell samples), and it is unreliable for consumer surveys in rural areas where telephone density is low.

Number of fixed telephone lines globally: This chart shows the numbers of fixed telephone lines from 1997 to 2007.

There are three main types of telephone polling: traditional telephone interviews, computer assisted telephone dialing, and computer assisted telephone interviewing ( CATI ).

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Political Science under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.