Political Attitudes I
[The President] is the last person in the world to know what the people really want and think.—James A. Garfield.
Our government rests on public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government practically as such.—Abraham Lincoln.
Popular opinion is the greatest lie in the world.—Thomas Carlyle.
Political attitudes and behavior have received far more attention than any other area of public opinion. As the quotes above show, they have been the subject of great controversy as well as great interest. Some authorities, like Abraham Lincoln, have claimed that government decisions were based firmly on public opinion. Others, such as George Gallup (1965), have doubted that they were, but felt that they should be. Still others, like Thomas Carlyle, have scoffed at the concept of public opinion and the notion that it could or should affect governmental decisions.
The political attitude area is almost unique among areas of public opinion in having an easily measured behavioral concomitant, the vote. Therefore voting behavior is frequently used as the criterion in political attitude surveys, or as the dependent variable of greatest interest. However, voting occurs only periodically, and only a few specific political issues are presented directly to the public for their vote, as in a referendum or constitutional amendment or bond issue. Therefore we cannot confine our interest to voting behavior alone, but we must also consider public attitudes on various other important political issues.
This chapter and the next one are organized in three major sections, based on the dependent variable being studied. In this chapter we consider political attitudes per se, particularly attitudes on important issues that are not put to public vote. In the following chapter we will first consider factors influencing individuals' voting behavior and then shift the focus to aggregate voting as a dependent variable, adding together all the individual votes and studying the patterns which occur within an election and the changes from one election to the next. For convenience in considering various presidential elections, Table 13–1 lists U. S. presidents since 1932 and summarizes major events in their presidencies.
Probably the most familiar single index in all of political polling is the presidential “popularity” rating or, more accurately, the rating of people's approval of the president's performance in office. For decades, stretching back to the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Gallup Poll and other survey organizations have been asking a question such as “Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as President?” It is widely known that fluctuations in these poll results can send shivers up and down the backs of White House staff members, or raise presidential spirits (and campaign dollars) when the results are favorable.