Patterns of Public Opinion
Since the American government serves the citizens, the government acts in the interest of the population and public opinion is often used as a judgment for the quality of the government. Many Americans are either poorly informed about politics or simply do not associate themselves much with the political world, though, so they lack the knowledge to form meaningful opinions on government action. Still, some citizens do care and pay attention to politics. These are the Americans who can provide meaningful answers to questions dealing with what they think about the government. As a whole, these are the people that make up the American public opinion. When looked ...view middle of the document...
Both types of change hold valuable meaning and shape government action.
Public opinion changes in the course of the long term because it is difficult, probably impossible, for the government to precisely meet the public’s wishes. Voting, as Stimson puts it, is a “censoring” process (Stimson p.61). Voters cannot vote for individual preferences and are forced to vote for whichever candidate shares most of their opinions. The preferences of election winners are often too liberal or conservative for the moderate preferences of most people, so the public receives a form of what they request that is too extreme. Stimson describes this concept as thermostatic opinion change and explains, evidence shows “movements in policy preference away from the chosen direction of the party in power” (Stimson, p. 81). From 1960 to 2000, the only three presidents to leave office with increased liberal or conservative preference from the time they entered office were Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Throughout history, the American public has tended to receive from the government too much of what they request, resulting in a public opinion that oscillates, always moving away from the preferences of the party in power.
If public opinion behaves in this thermostatic manner by responding to government actions, then in a long-term sense, public opinion is meaningful. It provides politicians with the feedback that indicates how much government intervention is desired at the time. This theory of opinion change in the long-term suggests that the public’s preferred level of liberalism before an election will determine the outcome of the election. For example if people generally want less government action, they will elect the more conservative candidate. In this case, there would be no purpose for campaigns, however evidence shows this is not necessarily true.
During campaign season, the short-term, day-to-day shifts in public opinion are closely examined. The election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980 was during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The news that citizens received each day about the crisis directly affected the presidential standings in the polls (Stimson p. 1). The Iranians knew if Carter was concerned about falling behind in the polls if he did not make progress with the hostage situation before election day (Stimson p. 1). Taking advantage of the pressure on Carter, the Iranians announced new conditions for the release of the hostages. Days later, Carter fell behind Reagan in the polls by five points, which increased to ten points before he dropped out of the race (Stimson, p. 1). If the Hostage Crisis and the election were separated by only a few days, Carter may have won the election. The small day-to-day changes in public opinion that seem trivial can have major effects on the government.
Stimson identifies campaigns as a flow of information in which candidates are displaying the facts about the current state of the nation and delivering their...