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Political attitudes can be broadly defined as the opinions and values individuals hold about political issues, events, and personalities. Social scientists first began the systematic study of these attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s. Surveys had been used sporadically prior to this time, but it was not until the publication of The Peoples Choice in 1944 that scholars began to examine the impact of media exposure and campaign-related events on evaluations of the major party presidential candidates. This study by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Helen Gaudet of the 1940 U.S. presidential election focused on a single community in Ohio and found that political messages conveyed through the mass media were not especially persuasive. That is, instead of media messages influencing voters to support a candidate they might otherwise have opposed, it simply reinforced existing predispositions.
Other studies followed with essentially the same conclusion. Messages conveyed through the mass media could be effective in passing along information, but not in changing opinions. Subsequent research modified this finding somewhat by uncovering a variety of indirect effects from media exposure. It turns out that, although the media cannot effectively tell individuals what to think, it can often influence them as to what to think about. This effect, known as agenda setting, stipulates that when the mass media focus on a particular topic—for example, defense spending—those exposed to the message are more likely to think this issue is an important one for the country. Similarly, when the media highlight a particular issue or set of issues, these matters become more important in the evaluation of political candidates. For example, a variety of experimental and survey-based studies have found that emphasizing racial considerations in the media results in attitudes about race being more heavily correlated with attitudes about crime, welfare, or candidate preferences. In short, the mass media tend to have greater indirect effects rather than direct effects on public opinion.
Group Differences in Public Opinion
One common theme in the study of public opinion is the examination of various social group differences in political attitudes. Scholars have typically focused on age, gender, class, and racial group differences. Often, attitudinal differences across these demographic groups are relatively small and inconsistent. For example, the elderly and the nonelderly rarely differ on matters of public policy. The elderly are more attentive to perceived threats to programs such as Social Security or Medicare, but the overall levels of support are virtually indistinguishable. Gender differences in public opinion are also less pronounced than some might think. On a wide variety of issues, the views of men and women are remarkably similar. There are some exceptions, however. In terms of partisanship and ideology, women are somewhat more likely than men to identify as Democrats and liberals. Similarly, since at least 1980, women have been somewhat more likely than men to support Democratic presidential candidates. The differences usually range from ten to fifteen percentage points. In the area of policy preferences, the most prominent gender differences are with issues concerning violence and the use of force. Women tend to be less supportive of these issues (e.g., war, capital punishment, permissive gun control, etc.) than men. Women are also more supportive of gay rights and slightly more liberal on social welfare spending, some measures of racial attitudes, and environmental issues. Interestingly, men and women do not differ dramatically in their levels of support or opposition to abortion, although women do tend to regard the issue as more important than men.
The effects of social class on political attitudes are also uneven. On balance, voters in the bottom half of the income distribution tend to vote for Democratic presidential candidates but this association is not strong and it has been declining over time. In terms of pubic opinion, studies show that citizens with lower incomes are more likely to support social welfare programs. These differences are usually on the order of ten to fifteen percentage points. Less affluent citizens are not, however, more likely to favor a progressive income tax or other taxes that disproportionately affect the wealthy. On most noneconomic issues there are virtually no class differences.
Racial differences in public opinion represent, by far, the largest demographic divide in political attitudes. This is especially true in the case of the views of whites and African Americans. On a range of racially tinged issues, such as efforts to end employment discrimination, support for school desegregation, and affirmative action in the workplace and in higher education, blacks and whites have differed by as much as fifty percentage points. Racial differences also emerge, of only slightly smaller magnitudes, on ostensibly nonracial issues, such as funding for welfare, food stamps, education, and Medicare. Donald R. Kinder and Nicholas Winter explored these differences in a 2001 article and tried to isolate the causes. Their results differ depending on whether the issue domain involves race-based policies or social welfare issues. In the case of the former, the racial divide is primarily explained by differences between African Americans and whites in political principles (e.g., egalitarianism and limited government), as well as in-group identification and out-group resentment. Class differences do not play a significant role. In the case of social welfare attitudes, the racial divide is mostly driven by all of the previous factors listed along with, to a lesser extent, social class differences between blacks and whites.
One final feature of public opinion with respect to groups is worth mentioning. Since the early part of the twentieth century, there has been a dramatic change over time in attitudes about disadvantaged groups in society. This is perhaps best illustrated in the case of attitudes about women’s rights and tolerance toward African Americans. In both cases, these changes are due, at least in part, to the conscious efforts of social movements to change public opinion. For example, Howard Schuman and his colleagues (1997) report that in 1942, 68 percent of whites in a nationally representative sample endorsed the idea that black students should go to separate schools from whites. By 1995, however, this figure had declined to a mere 4 percent. Similarly, in the case of attitudes about gender roles, Virginia Sapiro notes that in the early 1970s roughly one-third of Americans agreed that women should “take care of running the homes and leave running the country up to men” (2002, p. 35). By 1998, only about 15 percent of respondents adopted this position.
- Kinder, Donald R., and Nicholas Winter. 2001. Exploring the Racial Divide: Blacks, Whites, and Opinion on National American Journal of Political Science 45 (2): 439–456.
- Lazarsfeld, Paul, Bernard Berelson, and Helen Gaudet. 1944. The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. New York: Duell, Sloane, and Pearce.
- Sapiro, Virginia. 2002. It’s the Context, Situation, and Question, Stupid: The Gender Basis of Public Opinion. In Understanding Public Opinion, eds. Barbara Norrander and Clyde Wilcox, 21–41. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Schuman, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria 1997. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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