SOCS 621
Public Opinion on the Brink of Election: The Formation and Influence of Public Opinion

Douglas Foyle


Wednesday 6-8:30 PM Office: PAC 307

Class Location: PAC 107 Phone: 685-5049


Course Description

The relationship between leaders and the public remains a core concern of democratic theorists and political observers. This course examines a range of issues associated with public opinion such as the nature of public attitudes, the public's relationship to governance, and election campaigns. In addition to domestic policy, conceptions related to foreign policy are integrated throughout the course. The 2008 fall campaign season allows real time application of current events to scheduled course material. In each week, I’ll either apply concepts from the course to the current campaign or provide supplemental material engaging current campaign process issues.

Students are strongly encouraged to stay current with campaign 2008 developments through reading one of the major newspapers (e.g., New York Times or Washington Post) in either the paper or on-line version.

Course Grading

Grades will be based on three short papers (20% each), an essay final (25%), and participation (15%).

Class periods will be devoted to a mixture of lecture and discussion. Students must come to class prepared to discuss the day's assigned reading.

Short Papers

Short Papers: The short papers should be 3-4 pages in length. Students are required to write one paper in each of the three course sections (three papers in total). The paper topic can address any one of the daily discussion questions listed in the class schedule below.

Papers may be submitted to me through the course Blackboard (preferred) or to me personally in paper form. Papers are due at the beginning of class the week after the discussion of the questions occurs (e.g., a paper answering a September 17 discussion question is due before the beginning of class on September 24). If submitted through the Blackboard, papers should be uploaded before the beginning of the class when the paper is due. If submitted in paper form, papers should be turned in at the beginning of class. If Blackboard fails you, you may e-mail the paper to me as an attachment to my e-mail address above.


Papers should be typed, double-spaced, single-sided, 12 point font, 1 inch margins, and stabled together (if submitted in paper form). All pages should be numbered.

Comments and grades will be provided through the Blackboard.

References to material assigned for the course can be of the form: (Author Name, page number). Any references to material not assigned for the course should conform to the style outlined in: Kate L. Turabian, A Manual For Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).


Take-Home Essay Final: A take-home essay final will be due on Wednesday, December 10 at 10 p.m. The essay should be submitted on the Blackboard (preferred) or as an e-mail attachment to my e-mail address. Comments and grades will be provided through the Blackboard. The page limit is 6-8 pages. The question is:

Given what you have learned in this course, do you feel that public opinion provides an adequate basis for the functioning of a democratic polity?


Participation will be evaluated based upon the student's contribution to discussion, responsiveness to other students, and quality of insight.

If a student has more than one excused absence from class, the student has the option of completing extra work to make up for the missed participation. The make-up work is a 1 page reaction paper to one of the readings. Essentially, pick one of the readings from the day missed and give your view on why the article is useful, not useful, etc. (e.g., "Professor Murray completely misses the point that...").


The following books are required reading:

Carroll J. Glynn, et al, Public Opinion, 2004, 2nd edition

Herbert Asher, Polling and the Public, 2007, 7th edition

Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, David W. Rohde, Change and Continuity in the 2004 and 2006 Elections, 2007

All of the books are on reserve at Olin Library. A number of other readings are available directly from the course Blackboard as indicated on the syllabus.



I. Public Opinion: What Is It? How Should It Be Measured?

1. September 10 Course Introduction: Should Public Opinion Be Trusted With Policy?

John Mueller, "American Foreign Policy and Public Opinion in a New Era: Eleven Propositions," 2002 (Blackboard)

Rosalee A. Clawson & Zoe M. Oxley, "Conclusion," Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, 2008 (Blackboard)

How would you characterize Clawson and Oxley’s view regarding public opinion in a democracy? Do you agree with their assessment of public opinion’s characteristics (pliability, organization of attitudes, consistency with democratic basics? Why or why not?

Mueller suggests 11 propositions about public opinion and foreign policy. Pick one or two of them. Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not?

Taken together (and if correct), do you conclude that Mueller’s eleven propositions suggest that public opinion can be the basis for successful democratic policy formulation? Why or why not?

2. September 17 The Meaning of Public Opinion

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 1-72

Asher, Polling, pp. 1-31

Glynn presents five competing visions of public opinion (as the aggregation of individual Opinion p. 19, majority belief p. 20, clash of group interests p. 22, as media and elite opinion p. 24, and as "fiction" p. 25). Do you find one of these views of public opinion "best"? Why or why not?

What are the arguments that can be made in favor or against each of the five views of public opinion that Glynn presents? Which side do you find convincing? Why? (If using this question for the paper, pick one of the five views).

Given the history of how public opinion has been understood (Glynn, chapter 2), do you believe that polling provides a significant advancement in our understanding of public opinion? Why or why not?

After reading the introduction of the Asher book, what is your assessment of polling as a tool of measuring public opinion? Why?


3. September 24 The Modern Measurement of Public Opinion

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 73-116

Asher, Polling, pp. 32-118 (read for general idea in each chapter – I’ll hit the main points in lecture)

Thinking back to Glynn’s five competing visions of public opinion (as the aggregation of individual Opinion p. 19, majority belief p. 20, clash of group interests p. 22, as media and elite opinion p. 24, and as "fiction" p. 25), how does the method used to measure public opinion (polling, focus groups, content analysis of the media, etc.) affect how we understand public opinion?

How serious is the problem of "nonattitudes" (as discussed in Asher) for the concept of public opinion?

How serious is the problem of "nonattitudes" for the measurement of public opinion?

Given all the problems with polling measurement that Asher discusses, how seriously should we take polls in representing "public opinion?" Why or why not?

4. October 1 Where do Public Attitudes Come from?

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 119-280

Is the distinction between attitudes and opinions (p. 123) a meaningful one? Why or why not?

From a democratic perspective, does it matter where people get their attitudes from? Why or why not?

Given today’s reading, do you consider public opinion to be fundamentally rational? Why or why not?

Of the various perspectives on public opinion in today’s reading (psychological, sociological, perceptions, economic approaches), which do you find most convincing? Why?


II. Public Opinion’s Influence: Elections

5. October 8 Public Opinion in Presidential Campaign 2004

Abramson, Aldrich, Rohde, Elections, pp. 73-206

Final date for submission of paper 1

What most accounts for the 2004 election result: turnout, social forces, issues, presidential performance, or party? Why?

When the five factors in the previous question are considered, is the outcome in 2004 essentially determined before the campaign even starts? Why or why not?

Given today’s reading, is the 2004 election similar or different than previous campaigns? Why or why not?

6. October 15 Rationality and Structure of Public Opinion in Voting

Glynn, Public Opinion , pp. 283-354

How malleable to events and government action does the public appear in the today's readings?

How reasoning do you consider the public to be as portrayed in today’s reading?

Does the public seem to meet the basic requirements of competence to participate in democracy? Why or why not?

Do the results from the 2004 presidential election align with the scholarly views of the public presented in this reading? Why or why not?

7. October 22 The Influence of Public Opinion on Democratic Politics

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 355-404

Paul Burstein, "The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and Agenda," 2003 (Blackboard)

In the main, do you feel that today’s reading suggest a government that is responsive to public opinion? Why or why not?

What does Burstein see as the primary determinants of public opinion affecting policy? Do you agree? Why or why not?


8. October 29 The Influence of Public Opinion During Elections

Abramson, Aldrich, Rohde, Elections, pp. 1-73

Asher, Polling, pp. 141-177

To what extent is the 2008 campaign similar to the 2004 campaign discussed in today’s reading?

To what extent is the 2008 campaign different than the 2004 campaign discussed in today’s reading?

With the Asher reading for today, what roll have polls played in the 2008 presidential campaign?

III. Public Opinion and the Political Context

9. November 5 Public Opinion and the Presidency

Robert Y. Shapiro and Lawrence R. Jacobs, "Presidents and Polling: Politicians, Pandering, and the Study of Democratic Responsiveness," 2001, (Blackboard)

Richard Brody and Catherine Shapiro, "A Reconsideration of the Rally Phenomenon in Public Opinion," 1989 (Blackboard)

John Mueller, "The Iraq Syndrome," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005 (Blackboard).

Christopher Gelpi and John Mueller, "The Costs of War: How Many Casualties Will Americans Tolerate?" Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006 (Blackboard).

Final submission date for paper #2

Presidential popularity underlies the reading for today. Why do presidents care about their popularity in public opinion?

What do today’s readings suggest about a rational public?

How easy is it for the president to act against public opinion?


10. November 12 Public Opinion and Congress

Abramson, Aldrich, Rohde, Elections, pp. 207-299

Lawrence R. Jacobs, Eric D. Lawrence, Robert Y. Shapiro, and Steven S. Smith, "Congressional Leadership of Public Opinion,"1998 (Blackboard).

How are the factors that influence public opinion’s roll in presidential and congressional campaigns similar?

How are the factors that influence public opinion’s roll in presidential and congressional campaigns different?

In the Jacobs et al. reading, how can Congress be collectively responsive and individually unresponsive to public opinion? Does this formulation seem accurate to you? Why or why not?

11. November 19 Public Opinion and the Media

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 405-477

Asher, Polling, pp. 119-140

Given what Glynn presents about the media, do you believe that the media serves a positive role in the formulation of public opinion? Why or why not?

Given what Glynn presents about the media, do you believe that the media serves a positive role in the election campaigns? Why or why not?

After reading Asher, what do you make of the media’s handling of polling? Does it enhance or degrade democratic governance?

12. December 3 Course Conclusion: Is Public Opinion Safe for Democracy?

Glynn, Public Opinion, pp. 477-480

Asher, Polling, pp. 177-219

Abramson, Aldrich, Rohde, Elections, pp. 299-324

Has the advancement of technology in the measurement of public opinion enhanced or degraded the role of public opinion in democratic governance?

How accurate were Abramson, Aldrich, and Rohde projections of the 2008 campaign? Why or why not?

December 10 final submission date for paper #3

Take-Home Essay Final Due on December 10

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