The Video Unit 11
and Discussion (30 minutes)
Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:
- What is public opinion?
- What role should public opinion play in a democracy?
- What role does it play in democracy?
- What are the consequences of relying heavily on polls to understand
Watch the Video
(30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) [Top]
The video includes three segments:
1. A Change of Heart About Federalizing Airport Security
Shortly after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, the nation's
air traffic system came to a halt. But even after the airports reopened,
millions of Americans remained afraid to fly as they believed the
existing methods of screening for weapons and other security risks
were inadequate. Congress immediately introduced legislation to
improve airport security, and soon hearings in both the House and
Senate were underway. Despite President Bush's strong backing, the
legislation stalled. The problem was that although everyone agreed
on the need for more airport screeners and better equipment, there
were deep disagreements over whether the airport screeners should
be federal employees. Democrats wanted security personnel working
directly for the government, where recruiting, pay, benefits, training,
and supervision could be standardized and controlled. Republicans,
on the other hand, felt that the federal government should set broad
standards, but let private contractors actually employ and supervise
the screeners. Clearly, the Republicans gave in to the Democrats'
demands when they realized that their position conflicted with public
sentiment on the issue. On November 16, President Bush signed the
2. The Voice of the People. Really?
- Why did the Republicans eventually give in on the airport security
- How did political leaders know what the public wanted?
- Is this example atypical of the power of public opinion?
Every four years, the presidential election brings with it a barrage
of public opinion polls designed to gauge who's up and who's down,
and which issues are in and which are out. The better polls use carefully
crafted questions that are arranged in a precise order and a sample
that accurately reflects the make-up of the larger population. But
many Americans believe that a poll with more respondents will always
be better than one with fewer respondents and few are sensitive to
the precise wording necessary to conducting a good poll.
- What was wrong with Mr. Perot's poll?
- What would he have needed to do to create a better poll?
- What kinds of things should we, as consumers of polls, know
about polling in order to evaluate their accuracy?
3. The Case of Vermont and Its Civil Unions Legislation
In the spring of 2000, the Vermont legislature passed a controversial
bill that gave gay and lesbian couples the same legal protections
as those afforded to married couples in the state. While Vermont was
the first state in the U.S. to pass such legislation, the action was
not without opposition. Several public opinion polls run prior to
the vote showed that a majority of those surveyed did not favor passage
of the legislation. In addition to polls showing that more Vermonters
opposed than supported the bill, huge rallies and a letter-writing
campaign organized by opponents showed that the intensity of feelings
on the issue ran high. Vermont's lawmakers clearly knew they were
treading on dangerous political waters regarding this issue.
- How did Vermont's citizens express their views on civil unions?
- Polls can show what position people may take on issues, but
it does not do a good job of showing the intensity of those feelings.
Given that, should they be ignored in favor of participation in
rallies or letter-writing campaigns?
- Given public opinion on this issue, did Senator MacDonald do
the right thing?
and Discussion (30 minutes) [Top]
Try the Critical
Thinking activity for Unit 11. This is a good activity to
use with your students, too.
1. What Every Citizen Should Know About Polling But Is Afraid
To Ask (20 minutes)
Scientific methods of public opinion polling were first developed
in the 1930s. Before that, researchers and politicians attempted
to gauge public opinion through things like chance encounters with
citizens, straw polls (simply polling as many people as you can),
and exit polls (questioning people as they leave the polling place).
These methods were unscientific because no attempt was made to gather
a representative sample of the whole polling population.
Today, professional pollsters have high confidence in their polls
because they understand the science of polling and the art of interpreting
poll results. However, not all polls are created equal. As the example
of Ross Perot's poll in TV Guide illustrates, some polls are haphazardly
created and administered and can actually distort public opinion.
The aim of this learning resource is to provide basic information
about polling that can help all citizens become more knowledgeable
consumers of polls. Can you think of other criteria that should
be added to the list?
There are several things to look for in evaluating a given poll
and its results:
- Is the poll based on a random sample of the entire population?
A truly random sample requires that everyone in the entire target
population (usually all adults) have an equal chance of being
interviewed. Typically, a "good" random sample size
is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 persons who are selected
in a "stratified" or multi-stage process where progressively
smaller geographical units are randomly selected as sample areas.
Most polls will describe their sample methodology in the fine
print of their results. Those where the pollsters seek out respondents
are likely to be scientific, while those that allow respondents
to select themselves are usually not. Examples of unscientific
polls include call-in polls, Internet polls, and mall surveys.
- Are the questions understandable? The questions must
be framed in basic language that people can understand. This means
that pollsters avoid terms and jargon that require further explanation.
If some explanation is needed, the pollsters should present it
in a basic and balanced way. In addition, questions about obscure
details of policy or politics must be avoided since respondents
tend to give answers to questions on issues they know little or
- Are the questions asked fairly? Professional pollsters
are always on the lookout to avoid question wording that can bias
respondents' answers. For example, good pollsters always eliminate
leading adjectives, such as unpatriotic anti-war demonstrators,
ungodly pro-choice activists, or the staunch Republican candidate.
- Are the response categories offered sufficiently broad to
capture people's range of opinions? As the example of the
Perot poll shows, if you offer respondents a simple either/or
choice, you will get different (and usually much less accurate)
results than if you offer several choice options.
For example, when the Perot poll asked respondents whether or
not they favored one deficit reduction proposal (For every dollar
in tax increases there should be two dollars of spending cuts,
with the savings earmarked to pay down the debt), 97 percent of
respondents said yes. Yet when respondents were offered several
debt-reduction options, support for the original Perot option
- Is the sampling error reported clearly? All polls have
potential sampling errors, and the better ones will report their
potential error rate up front. A 3 to 5 percent sampling error
rate is considered reasonable, while polls with higher margins
of error should be interpreted with caution. What does sampling
error mean? Consider this: A poll with a 3 percent error rate
means that it is 97 percent accurate. In other words, in a poll
that registers high presidential public approval at 50 percent,
we can be 97 percent sure that the actual rate of public approval
is between 47 percent (50 minus 3 percent) and 53 percent (50
plus 3 percent). Obviously, if results of a poll are within 3
percentage points of each other, say one policy proposal being
supported by 49 percent of those polled and opposed by 51 percent,
then the results are considered "within the margin of error"
and no reliable difference can be asserted.
2. What Are the Sources of Your Political Values? (10 minutes)
While the processes of political socialization are complex, we know
that an individual's political values and attitudes are shaped by
a variety of factors including their parents, teachers, and peers,
and their response to formative events such as war or political
scandals. Think about your formative periods of political socialization,
including the potential influence of parents, relatives, peers,
teachers, and actual events on your political beliefs. To get things
started, you might recall the context of your first "political
awareness," such as when your parents were discussing (or arguing
about!) who they intended to vote for in a presidential election,
when they first tuned into a military conflict on television, or
their feelings about a major political event (e.g., presidential
speech or action). What had the greatest influence on your current
beliefs and opinions?
Read the following Readings from Unit 12 to prepare for next week's
- Introduction-Political Parties: Mobilizing Agents
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "Parties in the United
- Washington, "Letter to Thomas Jefferson"
- Roosevelt, "Bull Moose Speech"
- Piroth, "Selecting Presidential Nominees: The Evolution
of the Current System and Prospects for Reform"
Read next week's Topic Overview.
You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities:
What Every Citizen Should Know About Polling But Is Afraid To Ask
and What Are the Sources of Your Political Values? They are provided
for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.