Americans Want Leaders to Pay Attention to Public Opinion

by Frank Newport

But still skeptical of standard sample sizes used by pollsters

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The American public believes the nation would be better off if its leaders paid more attention to the views of the public and to public opinion polls. Americans also have more trust and confidence in the views of the people than in any of the three branches of the federal government, state or local government, or the mass media. At the same time, the majority of Americans paradoxically don't believe that a random sample of 1,000 adults -- the sample size of a typical public policy poll -- can accurately reflect the views of the nation's population. Republicans are less likely to want leaders to pay attention to polls than are independents and Democrats.

Should Leaders Follow Public Opinion More Closely?

More than 7 in 10 Americans say the nation would be better off "if the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely," and more than 6 in 10 agree that the nation would be better off if leaders "followed the views of public opinion polls more closely."

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?


Better off


Worse off

NO
DIFFERENCE
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2005 Sep 12-15

73

22

3

2

2001 Sep 7-10

75

18

4

3

1996 Apr 25-28 ^

80

11

--

9

1975 Oct 3-6

67

16

9

8

(vol.) = Volunteered response

^ Asked of a half sample

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of public opinion polls more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?


Better off


Worse off

NO
DIFFERENCE
(vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2005 Sep 12-15

61

33

3

3

2001 Sep 7-10

63

27

6

4

1996 Apr 25-28 ^

73

14

--

13

(vol.) = Volunteered response

^ Asked of a half sample

The difference of 12 percentage points in the "better off" responses between the "views of the public" and "public opinion polls" wording may suggest that "poll" has a mildly pejorative connotation. Still, the majority support for the idea of leaders paying more attention to polls per se reinforces the conclusion that the public is talking about more than just public opinion as expressed in elections.

In general, regardless of how the question is phrased, it is clear that Americans fairly strongly believe the nation would be well served if its leaders paid closer attention to the views of the average American -- and presumably less attention to special interests, lobbyists, party bosses, and so forth.

President George W. Bush has frequently stated that he does not govern by paying attention to polls, and has argued that his view of leadership is based on a president doing what he thinks is right rather than what polls show the public wants.

With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Republicans are less likely than independents or Democrats to believe the nation would be better off if its leaders paid more attention to public opinion.

SHOULD LEADERS FOLLOW THE VIEWS OF THE PUBLIC AND
PUBLIC OPINION POLLS MORE CLOSELY?

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?

Republicans

Independents

Democrats

Better off

63%

70%

85%

Worse off

31

24

11

No difference/No opinion

6

6

4

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of public opinion polls more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?

Republicans

Independents

Democrats

Better off

49%

58%

76%

Worse off

44

37

17

No difference/No opinion

7

5

7

It may also be possible that Republicans -- currently enjoying control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate -- feel it is less necessary to pay attention to the public's views. Additionally, with polls showing that a majority of Americans disapprove of the job President Bush is doing, and that a majority disapprove of administration policies on issues such as Iraq, Democrats may feel more comfortable at the moment saying the people's voice should be listened to.

There are significant differences in responses to these questions by educational level. Americans with the highest levels of educational attainment -- those with postgraduate degrees -- are less likely to say the nation would be better off if its leaders followed either the views of the public or public opinion polls. This is particularly true when it comes to public opinion polls. On the other hand, Americans with high school educations or less are more likely to believe the nation would be better off if leaders paid attention to either the views of the public or public opinion polls.

SHOULD LEADERS FOLLOW THE VIEWS OF THE PUBLIC AND
PUBLIC OPINION POLLS MORE CLOSELY?

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of the public more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?

Postgraduate

College grad

Some college

High school
or less

Better off

62%

69%

73%

78%

Worse off

35

24

21

17

No difference/
No opinion

3

7

6

5

If the leaders of our nation followed the views of public opinion polls more closely, do you think the nation would be better off, or worse off than it is today?

Postgraduate

College grad

Some college

High school
or less

Better off

44%

57%

57%

72%

Worse off

47

36

35

25

No difference/
No opinion

9

7

8

3

Trust and Confidence

The recent Gallup Poll asked respondents how much trust and confidence they had in each of eight different entities.

How Much Trust and Confidence Do You Have in the Following?

(sorted by "Great deal/Fair amount")

Great deal/
Fair amount

Not very much/
None at all

%

%

American people as a whole when it comes to
making judgments about issues facing the country

78

22

Your local government

70

30

Judicial branch

68

31

Your state government

67

33

Legislative branch

62

37

Men and women in political life in this country

58

40

Executive branch

52

48

Mass media

50

49

Consistent with the finding that Americans would like leaders to pay more attention to the views of the public, these data show that Americans have the highest level of trust in themselves -- followed by local government, the judicial branch, and state government.

One Thousand People?

Despite the fact that a majority of Americans believe the nation would be better off if leaders paid more attention to public opinion polls, relatively few believe in the random-sample methodology that is at the heart of today's polls.

As you may know, most national polls are typically based on a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults. Do you think a sample of this size accurately reflects the views of the nation's population, or not?

Yes, reflects

No, does not

No opinion

2005 Sep 12-15

30%

68

2

TREND FOR COMPARISON:

2001 Sep 7-10^

21%

75%

4%

1996 Jul 25-28^

28

68

4

1996 Apr 25-28^

28

68

4

1985^

28

56

15

^ QUESTION WORDING: Do you think a sample of 1,500 or 2,000 people can accurately reflect the views of the nation's population, or that it is not possible with so few people?

As can be seen, this distrust of the power of random sampling -- using what appear to be very small numbers of respondents -- is not new. Previous polling has reinforced the conclusion that while Americans approve of the concept and philosophy of polling as a way of measuring the will of the people, they don't understand how the small number of people involved in a typical sample can possibly represent millions in the general population.

There is no difference in response to this question by party or by education. This latter finding is particularly interesting. Better-educated Americans are no more likely than those with less education to believe that a random sample of 1,000 can represent the total population.

Summary

Americans -- perhaps not surprisingly -- have great faith in themselves as a guiding force in a democracy. As a result, they think the nation would be better off if their elected representatives paid more, rather than less, attention to the views of the people, including those views as measured in public opinion polls.

There is a significant paradox in these data, however. Americans still don't understand how a random sample of only 1,000 people can accurately represent the views of millions of Americans. The public, in short, accepts the philosophic underpinnings of polling and its use by elected leaders, but has yet to be convinced that polling works.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 921 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 12-15, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

The sample for this survey did not include the areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that were declared federal disaster areas following Hurricane Katrina. This accounts for about less than 1% (0.75%) of the U.S. adult population.

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