Political Opinion and Factors Affecting Voting Process
People share common interests, their opinion express their attitudes on a particular subject, when people share the same point of view; they have what we call consensus or simply, public opinion. In politics, things sound a bit different. The most common way to understand public opinion in democratic countries is elections. Elections can give a good indicator of who will staff the government; they give public the chance to express their political tendencies. However, elections cannot be the only basis for measuring public opinion, as they reflect only the opinion of those who participated in voting process. Other methods like surveys, experiments and similar quantitative methods can better be used to measure public opinion. In the following few paragraphs, we will present some of these methods and how public opinion affected polling in the United States by indicating some of the factors affecting voter choices and turnout.
Public opinion and its relation to political socialization process
Politicians define public opinion as the aggregate of voters' choices or attitudes shared by a group of adults who represent a certain portion of populations. People become aware of political values and politics when they participate in what we call political socialization; a process by which people may eventually become active voters; learn everything available about politics from their families, media, and community and everyday life experiences. They begin to form their own political opinions, influenced by factors like ideology, demographics (age, race, religion and education for instance), political knowledge and self interest.
Political opinion and polling process
Once people have formed their individual political opinions, they begin paying attention to issues like political direction, salience, degree of commitment and so forth. Polling can work as a vital tool for measuring political opinion. In the United States, early polling was not perfectly accurate until 1930s; it was measured by observing a small random sample using statistical analysis to identify relevance of variations. The majority of polls surveys in the United States are based on collecting telephone samples and interviews; they target national adults living in United States. Respondents are selected randomly with a typical sample size of one thousand national adults. However, using polls with small sized sample can provide inaccurate results, because some respondents are not fully representative of the targeted population.
Measuring public opinion
Accurate measurement of public opinion requires using accurate methods, commonly used methods are polls and elections. However, we can divide methods into two categories, formal and informal:
- Surveys: most commonly used methods, where hundreds of respondents are asked few questions about their attitudes related to specific political issues. Surveys are classified into three types: face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews and mail surveys.
- Experiments: it can provide useful results. It can be conducted in laboratories or in conjunction with survey research.
- Mail analysis: this method depends on analyzing letters written to politicians as these letters reflect the change in public attitudes toward politicians and the government.
- In-depth interviews: researcher performs face-to-face interviews for extended periods of time to uncover respondents' perspectives and outlooks.
- Focus Groups: consist of a moderator and a small group of respondent to find out what they think about critical political issues.
Informal Methods to measure public opinion
- Elections: common informal method reflecting public attitudes toward political issues; however it is imperfect measure of public opinion as it only reflects the opinions of those who voted.
- Straw Polls: it can be considered both formal and informal method.
Factors Affecting Voter Turnout
Voting turnout is the percentage of voters who actually participate in elections. Several factors can affect voter turnout, such as electoral competitiveness, election type, voting rules and regulations, and demographics. Older people, for instance, are more likely to participate in voting process; female voters' ratios surpassed male voters' ratios in presidential elections since 1980. Another factor is the socio-economic status of voters, during 2008 American presidential election, less than half of voters who earn annual income of $15,000 a year participated in voting process.
Public opinion represents consensus among people, it has a relationship with political socialization process. It can be measured by formal and informal methods, such as surveys, in-depth interviews and polling. Public opinion affects voting process and political opinion. Several factors affect voter turnout such as voter age, gender and socio-economic status.
- Russell G. Brooker and Todd Schaefer. PUBLIC OPINION IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Washington: Central Washington University