“public opinion is everything”


A big part of understanding how our political system (and democracy in general) works involves what people think and why they think it. How do people decide what their policy or electoral preferences are, given all the information that is available to them through the media, political leaders, academia, think tanks, etc.? A better grasp of the possible answers to this question can provide insight into other areas of interest such as how elections are won, how mundane issues become hot-button topics for popular discussion, elite domination of (or subservience to) the thoughts of the American people, how to run (or not run) a campaign … the list could go on.

I decided to get my hands dirty with a classic political science tome on the subject, John R. Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. While I certainly didn’t presume to be capable of a full grasp of the technical and methodological aspects of the work, I was able to grasp the broad themes of the work, which is all that matters for this discussion. So if you’re like me and love politics but don’t hold a graduate degree in Political Science, read on!


Allow me set the scene a little bit in order to place the book into its proper perspective. The book was published in 1992, a time when public opinion data was much less readily available than it is now. It was a groundbreaking contribution to the field, in that it was the first attempt to synthesize into one statistical model the many elements of public opinion research that had been taking place up to that point. While most scholars were becoming more and more specialized in their theories, Zaller attempted to buck the trend and to attempt a general theory of public opinion formation (at the expense of simplification as the author freely admits).

While the grandiosity of what the author is trying to accomplish is to a certain extent undermined by the lack of data that generalizing his theories would require, it is easy to see why the book became a classic in the field.

The introduction begins with the following quote, by the inimitable Walter Lippman:

“Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.”

Because of this, citizens must simplify realities and form stereotypes in their head based on what information they do have. Thus, the defense hawk pictures the USSR as an evil empire, while the dove conceives of it as a nation or alliance engaging in the same means for the same ends as any other such entity. On other subjects where there is little disagreement among elites (elites hereafter referring to the thought leaders in media, politics, academia, etc.) these frames of reference are similar among most members of society. An example of this might be the nearly unanimous support amongst elites and citizens alike for the Vietnam war early in the conflict.

Given these preliminary facts, one is left wondering, is public opinion simply an echo chamber of elite public opinion? If not, then what other factors shape public opinion? The book is an attempt to answer the latter question.

You know you want to read it…

Before diving into the conceptual framework of the book, it must be stated clearly that I have neither the expertise nor the desire to discuss here the methodological and technical aspects of the book. These issues are better left for the political science lecture hall. The author spends a great deal of time discussing the technical drawbacks and weaknesses of his theory, but my general view is that despite the ones he discusses and the one I mentioned above, the conclusions that author draws are generally supported by his empirical research. I invite those who are interested in the technical aspects of the authors’s work to read the book themselves or take a graduate level political psychology course. My purpose here is simply to discuss how Prof. Zaller’s conclusions can help the casual follower of politics better understand how our democracy works.


The theoretical underpinnings of the book begin with the assertion that “the probability that a person will support or oppose a given policy depends on the mix of positive and negative considerations available in the person’s mind at the moment of answering a question about it.”

In other words, people do have a relatively constant set of hopes, dreams, and values that make up who they are and what they think. But when it comes to political beliefs, the answers respondents supply are dependent upon the considerations that are fresh in the mind. The same people asked the same questions at different times quite often provide startlingly different answers. The fact is that people usually have conflicted opinions about different aspects of an issue — thus a person who saw a rowdy homeless man just before taking a survey will express minimal support for anti-poverty programs. On a different occasion, that same person, having recently read a heartfelt magazine article about a poor single mother, will likely express strong support for anti-poverty programs. The author explains:

“…for most people, most of the time, there is no need to reconcile or even to recognize their contradictory reactions to events and issues. Each can represent a genuine feeling, capable of coexisting with opposing feelings and, depending on momentary salience in the person’s mind, controlling responses to survey questions.”

Other scholars, such as Philip Converse have noted this aspect of public opinion. Experience supports this assertion as well: one need only to look at opinion polls taken at the same time that cover the same issue. They rarely, if ever, show the same results.

So what does form one’s political opinion?

Zaller argues that a person’s response comes not from a crystallized, permanent attitude, but rather from the sum total of different considerations in that person’s mind. These considerations are formed on the basis of cues from information sources (mainstream or partisan, elite or experiential). The probability of a person receiving and then accepting these considerations depends on that person’s level of political awareness (measured by the person’s ability to answer simple factual questions about government and political affairs such as “who is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?). Those who are less aware receive fewer considerations, and are thus more likely to maintain their point of view on a subject, despite the information streams around them. Those who are most aware have a greater knowledge base and awareness of how to answer based on their values. Those who are moderately aware are the most likely to change their minds because they pay attention to different considerations but don’t have the base of knowledge and partisan awareness to resist cues that don’t comport with their values.

At this point, I have explained the basics of Zaller’s model. The theory rests on four axioms, here stated to provide a concise summation of the theories:

  1. The reception axiom: The greater a person’s level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to and comprehend (receive) political messages concerning that issue.
  2. The resistance axiom: People tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions.
  3. Accessibility axiom: The more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to retrieve that consideration or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of their head for use.
  4. The response axiom: Individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately salient or accessible to them.

Zaller next turns our attention to how elite opinion shapes peoples’ considerations- this is the basic framework for understanding how political opinion works, and what the rest of the book seeks to understand.

He attempts to do this by adapting the model into a set of statistical equations and applying those equations different datasets to see what the resultant coefficients can tell us about what factors matters most when one is determining his or her response to a question. The theory is first tested in cases where there is a one-sided information flow, which essentially helps show the basics of how a person accepts or rejects any one given piece of information on an issue or policy. How likely a person is to receive a piece of information (which is dependent on her awareness) is compounded with how likely a person is to accept the point of view presented (which is also dependent on awareness). Essentially, a person has to be aware enough (watch enough news, read the newspaper) to get the message. Once a person has received that message, her likelihood of changing her point of view on that subject is dependent upon whether the person can understand and sympathize with that message.

Professor Zaller at work

Zaller then applies it to situations in which different points of view are available to the respondent. He finds that the strongest variable that allows more informed people to resist considerations that don’t comport with their partisan values is countervalence. This refers to the idea that a person knows what elites of the same persuasion are saying about an issue and thus can recall arguments against the viewpoint being presented. For example, a Democrat would have read the arguments that other members of his party have been making against an 20-week abortion ban bill and would thus be able to resist accepting the tenets of a story in support of the bill.

Another important variable is the strength of the messages reaching the population. The example here is of the growth in strength of the anti-war message during the Vietnam war. Strength of the message is here measured by the number of news stories for or against the war that are coded as supportive or critical of the war effort. Pro-war coverage in 1964 was dominant. But by 1968, anti-war coverage made a comeback, reaching rough parity with pro-war reportage. Both of the messages grew in intensity from there, reaching a peak in 1970. Accordingly, more aware Democrats were much less likely to support the war in 1968 than four years before. Meanwhile, less aware Republicans increased their support for the war through 1970 as the issue became more partisan.

Zaller’s chapter on elections is probably the most important in the book. It provides possible answers to questions like why House incumbents are so hard to beat. He shows that although voters of the “outparty” (that is the opposite party of an incumbent house member) likely disagree with many of the incumbent’s positions, will support him simply because they can remember some simple fact about him. Highly aware voters of the outparty are the only ones who receive enough information about the challenger to be able to support him or her. This is one way of explaining why incumbent House members have a roughly 90% reelection rate.

This all changes, however when the campaign is hotly contested (measured based on how much money is spent in the campaign). When this is the case, outparty partisans are much less likely to defect, opting instead to stick with their party’s candidate.


For me, reading this book was like political catnip: there is so many ways one can apply the myriad insights in the book to what’s happening in the news. The biggest thing that kept on popping up as I was reading was how these principles could be used to explain the ever more ravenous partisanship we are now seeing in Washington.

For instance, greater political awareness also means that one is more likely to maintain his or her partisan viewpoint, despite being exposed to considerations that support a different point of view. Since those likely to be more aware of politics are also more likely to be more highly educated, can it be said that the higher levels of education people are experiencing today play a role in the polarization we see in the electorate? Yes, polarization may be partly due to a smarter, more aware electorate, not the proliferation of knuckle-dragging Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Also, if public opinion is really just the result of a stream of considerations in the mind of an electorate that chooses not to educate itself as much as it could (or should) on politics, then would it be right to even question the value of even having elections? Does democracy work in the 21st Century?

Scholars such as Robert Shapiro and Benjamin Page argue in their book, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences, that “to the extent that the public is given erroneous interpretations or false, misleading, or biased information, people may make mistaken evaluations of policy alternatives and may express support for policies harmful to their own interests and to values they cherish.” In other words, whatever the authors think isn’t in the public’s interest must have been due to a dirty politician’s lies. In an article meant to update the conclusions drawn in the 1992 book, Shapiro tries to argue that his theories on the rationality of the public still stand despite the pesky public’s reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. Certainly a truly rational public wouldn’t have reelected this Republican. Somebody must have tricked 59 million people.

While I do support many of the conclusions Page and Shapiro drew in their book, there are plenty of other studies that show that the public is, in fact, quite prudent, especially when you look at patterns over the long-term. Maybe it’s just hard for the authors to accept that maybe the other half just had a different viewpoint at that point in time.

Zaller ultimately lands on the side of democracy, too: he ends up by arguing that democracy is necessary because those in power would tend to “jail, kill, or otherwise silence” members of the elite who disagree with their policies. The a well-informed electorate prevents elites disagreeable to the regime from disappearing in the night. Perhaps this might start actually happening in Russia soon?

Here’s another tidbit: How does the drastic increase in private political spending in the last few years play a role here? Given that reaching the less- and moderately-aware public (read as: those who are most easily persuaded) requires money, it becomes hard to resist the idea that the best-funded candidate is also the one who is most likely to win. And if most of the money is coming from fewer and fewer donors, a candidate need only pander to the few in order to get that money. Certainly, campaigns mostly funded by small-dollar donations from the base would be more democratic (one of the strengths of the 2008 Obama campaign).

The symptoms of this are all around us: The New York Times has wondered if selling a President is any different than selling a pizza (it probably isn’t). The Republicans may be stuck with the prospect of an ascendant Jeb Bush- a candidate the base isn’t excited about but whose outstanding fundraising abilities with the monied class makes him the favorite at the moment for the nomination. The changes in campaign funding have drastically altered how we must view the chicken-and-egg relationship between public and elite opinion.


We have come full circle now, back to the original issue of what role elite opinion plays in forming public opinion. This is fitting, as Zaller ends his book with a chapter on the subject. While there are some who fear that the elite could come to dominate public opinion to dystopian ends, Zaller argues that there are factors in American society that prevent this from happening (pre-citizens united and speechnow.org). Some of these are paraphrased here:

  • institutional incentives for experts to develop effective solutions to pressing problems (indeed, David R. Mayhew’s classic work Congress: the Electoral Connection argues that the primary driving factor behind every Congressman’s decision making is his desire to get reelected),
  • predisposition difference among experts that parallel those of the public,
  • a press that provides coverage of different “expert” viewpoints, and
  • a citizenry that is capable of aligning itself with the elite faction that shares its own predispositions when there is elite disagreement.

I hate to uncritically regurgitate other people’s ideas, but on these points, I’m afraid the author is spot on. Mr. Zaller himself admits that “There are, without question, myriad ways in which political authorities and other interests can short-circuit the idealized system I have sketched…” Is the new political reality we face an example of this? I think so. While there has always been and will continue to be greasy palms and quid pro quo money in politics, it is startling to think that we now live in an era where politicians are advertised with corporate and rich donor money, and then sold like any other product to an ill-informed public.

As I have argued elsewhere, the simple (though impossible) way to solve this problem would be if everyone became more informed. Money wouldn’t matter as much in politics if the lesser and moderately aware part of the electorate acted more like the more highly informed part, and exhibited more countervalent resistance to whatever happens to be on TV at the moment (Hyah! I’m gonna drop that term next time I’m drinking beer with my buddies. You should, too). Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing in the foreseeable future.

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