Chapter 6: The Politics of Public Opinion

Introduction to the Politics of Public Opinion

Photo of Mitt Romney in front of a crowd, smiling.
Figure 6.1 Governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the stage in Boston, Massachusetts, to give his “Super Tuesday” victory speech. On the eve of the 2012 election, he hoped to repeat the performance, since campaign polls showed he was ahead, but non-campaign polls told a different story. (credit: modification of work by BU Interactive News/Flickr)

On November 7, 2012, the day after the presidential election, journalists found Mitt Romney’s transition website, detailing the Republican candidate’s plans for the upcoming inauguration celebration and criteria for Cabinet and White House appointees and leaving space for video of his acceptance speech.[1] Yet, Romney had lost his bid for the White House. In fact, Romney’s campaign staff had been so sure he would win that he had not written a concession speech. How could they have been wrong? Romney’s staff blamed the campaign’s own polls. Believing Republican voters to be highly motivated, Romney pollsters had overestimated how many would turn out (Figure 6.1).[2] The campaign’s polls showed Romney close to President Barack Obama, although non-campaign polls showed Obama ahead.[3] On election night, Romney gave his hastily drafted concession speech, still unsure how he had lost.

In the 2016 election, most polls showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with an advantage nationwide and in the battleground states in the days leading up to the election. However, Republican nominee Donald Trump was elected president as many new voters joined the process, voters who were not studied in the polls as likely voters. As many a disappointed candidate knows, public opinion matters. The way opinions are formed and the way we measure public opinion also matter. But how much, and why? These are some of the questions we’ll explore in this chapter.

*Watch this video to learn more about shaping public opinion.

  1. Erik Hayden, “Mitt Romney’s Transition Website: Where ‘President-Elect’ Romney Lives On,” Time, 8 November 2012. (February 17, 2016).
  2. John Sides, “The Romney Campaign’s Own Polls Showed It Would Lose,” Washington Post, 8 October 2013; Charlie Mahtesian, “Rasmussen Explains,” Politico, 1 November 2012. Jan Crawford, “Adviser: Romney ‘Shellshocked’ by Loss,” CBS News, 8 November 2012.
  3. Crawford, “Adviser: Romney ‘Shellshocked’ by Loss.”


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