About the Center on Policy Attitudes



Mission: Giving the Public a Greater Voice

It is a widespread myth that Washington policymakers are highly reactive to public opinion. In fact, various studies have shown that policymakers have a poor understanding of US public attitudes and frequently make decisions that are inconsistent with the views of the majority of Americans. Furthermore, the American public feels it is not being heard and feels marginalized from the policymaking process. During the last few decades, studies have shown a sharp erosion in Americans' belief that the US government listens to them and acts in the public's interest. This disconnect between the public and policymakers interferes with the democratic process.

The Center on Policy Attitudes was created to help give a greater voice to the American public in the policymaking process. Founded in 1992, COPA seeks to deepen understanding of American public attitudes by:

  • conducting in-depth nationwide polls, focus groups, and interviews;
  • integrating its findings together with data from other organizations into a coherent analysis of majority opinion;
  • and actively communicating its findings to the policymaking community, the media, academia and the public.

Giving the public a greater voice is not meant to imply that policymakers simply should make policy according to the polls. However, it is possible -- through polls and other means -- to understand the public's underlying values and bring those values to bear on the policymaking process. The failure to do so falls short of democratic ideals and contributes to the feeling that Washington is out of touch with the world outside the Beltway.

Implicit in this view is the idea that the voice of the public has value and even wisdom. Central to the notion of democracy is the idea that a process of governance informed by the perspectives of those governed is not only most apt to be viewed as legitimate, but will bring to bear on public policy the greatest amount of intelligence -- more than can be found in any one part of society.

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Discerning the Public's Underlying Values

One reason that policymakers have trouble understanding the public is that they frequently confront poll results that seem contradictory and unstable. This contributes to a widespread tendency among policymakers and the media to view the public as incoherent, erratic and highly reactive to emotional events. This view of the public was also held by academics in the early years of public opinion research, but subsequent in-depth research revealed it to be a myth. Majority public opinion is actually quite coherent, stable and responsive to long-term considerations and collective interests.

The Center on Policy Attitudes seeks to discern the coherent voice of the majority public obscured by seemingly disparate poll results. By carefully examining the wording of various poll questions, by posing new questions that elicit more nuanced attitudes, and by examining and controlling for the public's misperceptions, COPA seeks to reveal the deeper values that underlie apparent inconsistencies.

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Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Even when policymakers and journalists agree on how the public feels about an issue, their perceptions may be incorrect. COPA makes a point of questioning assumptions and has found a number of cases in which the public was, indeed, being misperceived.

For example, COPA refuted the myth that the public intrinsically opposes foreign aid. Indeed, polls showed that strong majorities felt the US was spending too much on foreign aid. However, COPA went further and asked Americans to estimate how much of the federal budget was spent on foreign aid. The median estimate was 15-20% - when the actual amount is 1%. Asked how much it should be, the median response was 5-10%, hardly a sign that the public opposes foreign aid.

More broadly, COPA challenged the widespread notion that the public is showing renewed isolationism in the wake of the Cold War. Through an extensive study, in conjunction with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, it was demonstrated that even when members of the policy community who had this perception were given the opportunity to propose their own poll questions, the public still did not show the assumed tendency toward isolationism. This study resulted in the recently published book, Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism.

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Breaking New Ground in the Study of the Public

The Center on Policy Attitudes has developed innovative methods for discerning how the public' s values come to bear on areas of public policy. These new methods seek to simulate the deliberative process policymakers go through in making policy decisions. For example, COPA polls not only ask questions in a neutral fashion, they also present strongly stated pro and con arguments -- the kind that policymakers hear. COPA' s polls require respondents to make tradeoffs, similar to those policymakers must make -- for example, asking them to try to balance components of the federal budget. Efforts are made to find out if attitudes are being influenced by misperceptions and to determine the effects of correct information. COPA' s approach uniquely includes members of the policymaking community in poll question development to ensure questions are balanced and reflect the prevailing policy debate.

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Informing Key Audiences

The Center on Policy Attitudes actively works to communicate its findings to members of the policymaking community, the media and academia. It distributes its reports to members of Congress and the Executive Branch as well as to policy research institutes. COPA personnel have testified before Congress and given briefings to the White House, State Department, USIA, USAID, NATO, the United Nations, the European Commission and US embassies abroad. COPA's findings have been reported in most major news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, International Herald-Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, National Journal, the Associated Press, Reuters , CNN, NBC, BBC, NPR, C-SPAN and others.

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Foundation Sponsors

COPA's projects have been funded by:

  • Ford Foundation
  • Rockefeller Foundation
  • Rockefeller Brothers Fund
  • Tides Foundation
  • Ford Foundation
  • German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • Compton Foundation
  • Carnegie Corporation
  • Benton Foundation
  • Ben and Jerry's Foundation
  • Americans Talk Issues Foundation
  • Circle Foundation
  • Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
  • Joyce Foundation

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The Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA) and its Program on International Policy Attitudes (affiliated with the University of Maryland) conduct research on public attitudes on public policy issues through nationwide polls and focus groups. They also study policymakers’ perceptions of the public. COPA actively disseminates its findings to policymakers and the media, as well as to the academic community. In addition to its studies, COPA is developing a major web site that will offer current and comprehensive analyses of data on public attitudes on a broad array of policy issues.


  • COPA has no open positions at this time.


  • COPA has no open positions at this time.

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