Public Opinion

Politicians have long been interested in the moods and opinions of the people. After all, members of Congress and the President are elected to represent the people, a difficult task if one does not know and understand what the people want. Even George Washington employed his own "pollster," a friend back in Virginia who would mingle with the "ordinary folks" to find out what they thought of the President. While the measurement of public opinion has become much more scientific and precise since Washington's day, the attitudes of the public have always played an important role in shaping public policy and the direction of the nation.

What is Public Opinion?
"Public opinion" is the distribution of opinions and attitudes held by the public. Individuals hold a wide variety of opinions. By measuring these opinions at the individual level and aggregating them, the proportions of the population with particular beliefs and preferences can be determined. When measuring public opinion, pollsters are not only concerned with the content of public opinion, i.e. what it is that people think and believe, but also with the stability of people's opinions over time. It is also useful to know how strongly the public holds particular opinions and the direction those opinions seem to be moving. The content, stability, intensity and direction of public opinion are all important indicators of what the public wants and expects out of its government and political leaders. While popular opinion is not the only factor that determines public policy, it is generally the most important one. The role of public opinion in a representative democracy is further discussed below.

Reasearch and Study Helps

Are Public Opinion Polls Really Accurate?

Why Don't Politicians Seem to Listen to the People?

American National Election Study Conducted every election year since 1948.

Public Opinion on the Web

The Gallup Poll
ABC News Polls

Washington Post Polls