The Meanings of
Were they alive today, our nation's founders might not be surprised that public opinion is still an important force in American politics. Yet they would be astonished to learn just how pervasive discussions of public opinion have become. The president, members of Congress, candidates for public office, interest group leaders, journalists, and corporate executives, as well as ordinary citizens, constantly ask the same question: "What does the public think?" Our leaders need to know what sorts of policies and initiatives voters support, but a variety of other groups and individuals also need to have a working knowledge of public opinion at any given time. Interest group leaders must decide which battles to wage and how strongly their efforts will be supported by their constituents. Journalists, who are key players in the measurement and communication of public opinion, need to know what their readers and viewers want to hear about, but they also survey the political landscape for those of us who are curious about the attitudes of our fellow citizens. Even corporate executives who do not hold political office must keep their "ears to the ground" in order to understand trends in American culture—what consumers think about, what they purchase, and, generally, how they choose to live.
Since so many parties need to understand the state of American public opinion, there are a variety of sources that interested groups and individuals can turn to for such information. One of the most obvious indicators of public opinion is the sample survey or opinion poll. These quantitative data can often give us a sense of how Americans feel about policy issues, social practices, or lifestyle issues. Another source of information about public opinion is vote tallies after elections or referenda. These reports often reveal citizens' preferences in very dramatic ways. Yet students of American politics must go beyond these obvious techniques for assessing public opinion and think about all of the "places" that citizens' opinions can be found—in the scripts of television programming; at political rallies, town meetings, or