Overview

An abundance of polling data shows that the majority of Americans is quite dissatisfied with the American government. While this dissatisfaction has moderated a bit of late, it is still historically very high. Given that the US economy is sustaining an unprecedented boom, that the US prevailed in the Cold War, and that there are no longer any serious threats to American security, one might expect Americans to show higher levels of satisfaction. Nonetheless, as has been widely noted, less than a third of Americans say that they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" most of the time—as compared to the 1960s, when three-quarters felt this way. Disenchantment with government has also contributed to declining voter turnout.

This dynamic raises fundamental questions. Why are Americans so dissatisfied with the government? Do they perceive that the government is not doing what is best for the interests of the public? Do they think that the government is not doing what the public wants? If so, what do they perceive as driving government decisions? What do they see as the antidote to the present situation?

Another recent issue that highlighted public dissatisfaction with the government was the impeachment of the President. With the exception of the final Senate vote against impeachment, virtually every step taken by Congress was opposed by a strong majority of Americans, and provoked widespread annoyance.

This brought to the surface fundamental questions about how the government should make decisions. Throughout the impeachment process numerous members of Congress asserted that their constituents wanted their member to vote according to his or her sense of what is right, not to follow the polls. But is this true? How much do Americans think elected officials should pay attention to majority opinion? What do they think about polls? Do Americans believe that there is some wisdom in public opinion, or do they perceive it as being too emotional, volatile and uninformed to offer a basis for decisionmaking?

Americans complain about how politicians are partisan and parochial. But do Americans really want elected officials to set aside their party agenda in favor of majority opinion? Do they really want elected officials to set aside the interests of their district in favor of the national interest?

To find how Americans feel about all of these issues, the Center on Policy Attitudes conducted an in-depth study that included:

• a review of existing polling data going back several decades;
• focus groups in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Baltimore, Maryland; and Roanoke, Virginia;
• a nationwide poll of a random sample of 1,204 respondents (margin of error 3-4%) conducted January 26-31, 1999 (results were weighted to be demographically representative).

The study also included an analysis of public attitudes on the specific case of the impeachment process, which is presented in Appendix A. A demographic analysis can be found in Appendix B, and the complete questionnaire and results of the COPA poll in Appendix C. Appendix D provides an explanation of how the poll was conducted.

Overview

An abundance of polling data shows that the majority of Americans is quite dissatisfied with the American government. While this dissatisfaction has moderated a bit of late, it is still historically very high. Given that the US economy is booming, that the US prevailed in the Cold War, and that there are no longer any serious threats to American security, one might expect Americans to show higher levels of satisfaction. Nonetheless, as has been widely noted, less than a third of Americans say that they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" most of the time-as compared to the 1960s, when three-quarters felt this way. Disenchantment with government has also contributed to declining voter turnout.

Another recent issue that has highlighted public dissatisfaction with the government was the impeachment of the President. With the exception of the final Senate vote against impeachment, virtually every step taken by Congress was opposed by a strong majority of Americans, and provoked widespread annoyance with the government. It also brought to the surface fundamental questions about how the government should make decisions, particularly the question of how much influence the public should have on government decisions.

To find out more about why Americans feel dissatisfied with the government, and more importantly, how they feel elected officials should make decisions, the Center on Policy Attitudes conducted an in-depth study that included:

Findings

1The public’s dissatisfaction with the US government is largely due to the perception that elected officials, acting in their self-interest, give priority to special interests and partisan agendas over the interests of the public as a whole. Most Americans feel that they are marginalized from the decisionmaking process, that elected officials neither pay attention to nor understand the public, and that most of the decisions the government makes are not the decisions that the majority of Americans would make.

Asked, "Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?", only 19% said it is run for the benefit of all the people, while 75% said it is run for the benefit of a few big interests.

In the focus groups, the dominant complaint was that the government was not serving the interests of the public as a whole, but, specific parts of the society that were well organized and well financed. For example, a man said that policymakers should be "more impartial to the money ... and not necessarily let[ting] big business ... govern how you make the law, but actually look to what’s going to be best for the people." A woman joined in, saying, "And it’s for all the people." In another group a woman asked incredulously, "What are they going to do for the country? What are they going to do for the people? They’re not talking [about] that no more." A man emphasized that policymakers should do what is best for "America as a whole."

Americans assume that this failure to serve the interests of all the people is driven by policymakers pursuing their own interest over the interests of the whole public. This has been demonstrated in numerous polls. In January 1999, 67% agreed with the rather extreme statement that "the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests"; only 18% disagreed (Rasmussen Research). Eighty-six percent said that "elected officials pursuing their own agenda, instead of the voters’ agenda" was a very major (63%) or fairly major (23%) cause of reduced public confidence in government, according to a February 1997 Hart and Teeter poll. A January-April 1996 University of Virginia poll asked how well certain phrases described "America’s governing elite." The most widely accepted description—endorsed by 69%—was that they were "only concerned about their own agenda." A 54% majority rejected the description of the elite as "concerned about the common good." Likewise, 64% rejected the phrase "sensitive to the concerns of most Americans." A woman in one of the focus groups said that she thought that "the things that I really want to see happen normally don’t, because the individuals running the government are too self-serving." A man said, "Politicians want to stay in office longer, so they vote on what they think will keep them in office." A woman joined in, nodding and saying, "very self-serving."

Americans believe that elected officials, prompted by their self-interest, are distracted from thinking about the interests of the whole public by special interests (i.e., specific, organized parts of the public), especially those who help the official get elected. In February 1997, an overwhelming 83% agreed that "Special interest groups have more influence than voters," (see box on next page) while 76% agreed that "Congress is largely owned by special interest groups" (Louis Harris). Seventy-four percent said they think that "campaign contributions from corporations, special interests, and individuals directly influence the decisions most elected officials make," according to a January 1997 CBS News poll. In an October 1996 Newsweek poll of likely voters, 77% said that "campaign contributions buy too much influence for big corporations, labor unions, and other domestic special interests." Asked whether "you think most elected officials represent the interests of average citizens, or do you think they represent special interests?", 84% said they represent special interests and only 9% said they represent average citizens (Newsweek, August 1994). In June 1995, 70% agreed that "The government is run for the benefit of special interests, not to benefit most Americans" (10% neutral, 19% disagree, Americans Talk Issues Foundation [ATIF]).

In the focus groups, respondents expressed a high level of confidence that if special interests had less influence, the interests of the public as a whole would be better addressed. As a woman said:

The government needs to be responsible to all the people, and in that sense fairer. And the way I see that happening is to get rid of political action committees ... and that way money won’t be at the focus of elections, and people like us would have a better chance of getting our say and getting some of our way.

The most common way that participants expressed their frustration with the special interests was to complain, often quite bitterly, about the influence of money. As one man said, "Money rules." Commenting on how this affects politicians, a woman said, "Would you vote for a stack of letters or for a stack of money? You have to be a really strong person to vote with the letters that you know is representative of the little people out there, than to vote for this company that is giving you this money."

Elected officials, as well as the special interests, are perceived as resisting changing the situation through campaign finance reform. When an April 1997 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked respondents to choose among three reasons why campaign finance reform had not been passed by Congress, 69% chose the reason: "The special interests and the politicians will oppose any changes in a system that works to their advantage."

Americans say that policymakers’ attention to special interests is a key reason for their low confidence in the government. In the "Attitudes Toward Government Survey" conducted for the Council for Excellence in Government by Hart and Teeter in February 1997, an overwhelming 78% said that "the influence of special interests" was a "very major" (50%) or "fairly major" (28%) cause of reduced confidence in government.

The charge of being excessively attentive to special interests rather than to the interests of the whole public is especially directed toward Congress. In October 1998, CBS/New York Times asked, "Do you think most members of Congress are more interested in helping the people they represent, or more interested in helping special interest groups?" Sixty-two percent replied "special interest groups," and only 25% replied "the people they represent." In a 1992 University of Nebraska study, 86% agreed that "Congress is too heavily influenced by special interest groups when making decisions." Only 30% agreed that "Congress does a good job representing the diverse interests of Americans, whether black or white, rich or poor," while 57% disagreed.

Americans perceive the problem of the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and of corporations getting worse. Asked in the current poll, "Over the last ten years, would you say that, overall, the wealthy have gained influence or lost influence on the US government?", 69% said that the wealthy have gained influence. Similarly, in a different half-sample, 67% felt that that corporations had gained influence. In January 1997, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 68% thought that "compared to twenty years ago ... the American political system today is more influenced by special interest money"; only 24% thought this was "about the same" (less: 4%).

The capacity to "stand up to special interest groups" is a primary quality that voters seek in candidates. In March 1999, ABC/Washington Post found an overwhelming 84% said this quality was very important (52%) or somewhat important (32%) in deciding how to vote in the 2000 presidential election.

This susceptibility to special interests has generally been seen as existing equally in the two political parties. Between January 1993 and June 1998, NBC/Wall Street Journal asked the question, "Which party do you think is more influenced by special interests and lobbyists—the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?", eight times. Never did these questions register a difference of more than three points between the parties. In June 1998, 28% said the Democratic Party, 30% said the Republican Party, and 28% volunteered "both equally." A poll sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council (July 1997) found the same thing: when asked whether "tied to special interests ... [applies] more to the Democrats in Congress or the Republicans in Congress," 37% picked the Democrats, 36% the Republicans, and 27% didn’t know. An NBC/Wall Street Journal question asked which party would do a better job "when it comes to standing up to the special interests": in September 1997 a 59% majority said "neither" (29%) or "both the same" (30%), while 24% picked the Republicans and 19% the Democrats. However, a March 1999 finding suggests a possible shift: when ABC/Washington Post asked "Which political party do you trust to do a better job standing up to lobbying groups and special interests?," 37% said the Democrats, 28% the Republicans, and 21% said "neither" ("both": 4%).

Partisanship

Americans also tend to view elected officials, especially in Congress, as unable to come to agreement on solutions for national problems because they are too preoccupied with serving the interests of their political party. In the November 1998 survey by National Election Studies (NES), 73% said that the phrase "too involved in partisan politics" described Congress well. A September 1994 ABC poll asked, "When members of Congress cannot agree on legislation, do you think that’s mainly because of honest disagreement about policy, or because each side is trying to score political points?" A near-unanimous 89% said it was because of political point-scoring, while a mere 9% ascribed inaction to honest disagreement over policy.

The same poll asked specifically about why Congress was making little progress in dealing with the issue of health care at the time—77% said that a major reason was "because Congress[ional] members are more interested in playing politics than getting things done."

Concerns about partisanship came up vividly in the focus groups. A common complaint was that partisan battles drown out the voice of the public. As one man said:

It’s not what the people want or think or care about. It’s a political struggle for power up there: who’s going to be in control, the Republicans, the Democrats? They’re stepping on everybody along the way. They don’t care.

Most Americans Feel Marginalized

Most Americans see themselves as being part of the public to which elected officials pay little attention—as being marginalized from the decisionmaking process. In the current poll, 58% agreed that "Public officials don’t care much what people like me think." Fifty-six percent agreed with the unequivocal statement, "People like me don’t have any say about what the government does" (emphasis added). In June 1997, Pew asked a similar question which offered respondents two statements, "Most elected officials care what people like me think," or "Most elected officials don’t care what people like me think." Sixty-seven percent chose the latter statement that officials do not care (55% strongly). In a September 1994 ABC poll, 83% agreed that "Most members of Congress care more about special interests than they care about people like you." In the current poll, 67% answered that people in government understand "what people like you think" either "not that well" (33%) or "not well at all (35%)."


Consistent with their view that the government does not understand them, an overwhelming majority feels that the decisions that Congress makes are not the decisions they would make half the time or more. The COPA poll asked, "What percentage of the time does Congress make decisions that are the same as the decisions that you would make?" Among those who gave a percentage, the median response was 40%. Overall, of those who gave an answer, 85% gave a response of less than half the time (55%) or half the time (30%). Only 15% of respondents said more than half the time.

Washington Seen as Out of Step With Public

Consistent with their feeling that policymakers do not make the decisions they would make, a strong majority feels that policymakers do not understand or pay attention to the majority public. In the current poll, 63% said they felt that "people in government understand what most Americans think" either "not that well" or "not well at all," while just 35% said "somewhat well" or "very well."

Other polls have found even stronger findings. In a November 1997 Pew Research Center poll, 76% agreed with the statement, "Generally speaking, elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly." An October 1994 Gallup poll found 75% saying Congress is "generally out of touch with average Americans." When a January 1994 ATIF study asked, "How much of the time do you think the government considers the preferences of the majority of voters in passing legislation?", only 1% said "just about always," and 18% said "most of the time." An overwhelming majority of 80% said "only some of the time" (64%) or "almost never" (16%).

Such feelings were also widely expressed in the focus groups. A man explained:

I don’t believe [government officials] serve the citizens, but they should. And they don’t listen to the citizens. I think it’s more the appearance of fairness and equality, the appearance that they want the American public to think that they really value what they say in their views.

Even more importantly, Americans feel that the decisions Congress makes are inconsistent with the views of the majority. In the current poll, respondents were asked, "What percentage of the time do you think Congress makes decisions that are the same as the decisions that the majority of Americans would make?" Here again, among those who gave a percentage the median response was 40%. Eighty-six percent of those who answered gave a response of half the time (26%) or less than half the time (64%). Only 18% of respondents said more than half the time. Given that Congress would presumably be consistent with the majority’s attitudes a substantial portion of the time just by chance, it appears that most Americans think the majority has only a very marginal influence.

Perceptions that the government was out of step with the majority were widely expressed in the focus groups—as in the following conversation excerpt:

Female: We vote and vote and have polls and opinions and it seems to go the other way.
Moderator: What’s the other way?
Female: Not our way.

Feelings of Marginalization Historically High

The majority’s dissatisfaction with its level of influence over government decisionmaking is not a chronic condition rooted in human nature. The National Election Studies (funded by the National Science Foundation) have monitored the public on this issue for four decades. On virtually all its measures, the public felt far less marginalized in the early to mid-1960s. In the late 1960s, dissatisfaction began a sharp upward movement until the mid-to-late 1970s. Thereafter, its movement was more erratic, but it reached new heights in the 1990s.

In response to the statement, "Public officials don’t care much what people like me think," in 1960 only 25% agreed. Agreement started an upward movement, reaching a majority for the first time in 1976 and 63% in 1990 (58% in the current poll).

In response to the unequivocal statement, "People like me don’t have any say about what the government does," only 27% agreed in 1960. The numbers rose thereafter, but not until 1990 did the number of those in agreement surpass the number of those disagreeing. The number agreeing in the current poll (56%) matches the previous high of 1994.

Confidence that the government serves the nation as a whole has plummeted over this same time period. In 1964, a strong 64% majority said that the government "is run for the benefit of all the people," while only 29% said that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."

In 1972, a majority (53%) said for the first time that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests." From 1990 through 1996, those saying "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests" were always 69% or more, while the percentage saying that the government is run for the benefit of all never went above 27%. National Election Studies (NES) found 31% in November 1998; COPA’s 19% result in January 1999 was back in line with most results through the 1990s.

2 To better serve the interests of the whole public, an overwhelming majority feels the majority public should have much more influence over government decisions. A strong majority expresses confidence in the public’s judgment, and says it would give more credence to the decisions of a random sample of Americans informed on all sides of an issue than to the decisions of Congress.

Apparently, Americans feel that the government’s failure to serve the interests of the whole public (by giving disproportionate priority to special interests and partisan goals) could be remedied by the general public having much greater influence over government decisionmaking. Asked, "If the leaders of the nation followed the views of the public more closely, do you think the nation would be better off or worse off than today?" an overwhelming 80% said that it would be better off, while only 9% said it would be worse off. (This high number is not simply due to public disgruntlement about the impeachment process at the time the poll was taken; when Gallup asked the question in April 1996, the exact same percentage said that the nation would be better off by following the public.)

Overall, Americans feel that the public should have far more influence than it presently does. Respondents were asked to consider "how much influence the views of the majority of Americans" have on "the decisions of elected officials in Washington," and told to answer on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning not at all influential and 10 meaning extremely influential. The average answer was 4.6.

Respondents were then asked how much influence they thought the views of the majority of Americans should have on the decisions of elected officials in Washington. The average response was 8.4. Thus, the average difference between the actual and preferred level of influence was 3.8.

Most significantly, an overwhelming majority of 84% indicated they wanted to see the public have more influence than they perceive it to have now, by giving a higher number for the preferred level than for the actual level. Just 8% indicated they favored the existing amount of public influence and 4% indicated they favored less. Among those who showed a desire for greater influence, the amount of increased influence desired was also quite substantial—4.4 points on the 10-point scale.


To determine the strength of these attitudes, and to see if they could be changed through persuasive arguments, respondents were presented a series of pro and con arguments about whether the public should have more influence on government decisions and were asked to rate each argument as convincing or unconvincing. All of the pro arguments were convincing to an overwhelming majority, while none of the con arguments were found convincing by more than 27%. (See chart below.)

Pro and Con Arguments on Increasing Public Influence

Pro Arguments
The government has become so bogged down in partisan conflict and so distorted by the influence of moneyed interests that it is necessary for the American public to have a stronger voice in shaping government decisions 80%
The principles of democracy are the cornerstone of the United States' form of government. Therefore, as a general rule, the government should be guided by the will of the majority when making decisions. 77%
Nobody knows what's best for the people better than the people. Paying attention to the preferences of the majority is most likely to produce policies that reflect what is best for the country as a whole. 74%

 

Con Arguments
The public is emotional, volatile and uninformed. Therefore it is better for policymakers not to be very influenced by the public's wishes when making decisions. 20%
Members of the government are well informed and are able to think through issues thoughtfully and objectively. Therefore their judgments should count for more than the views of the public. 26%
While there are many problems in the way that the government works, increasing the influence of the public is not really going to help. There is really no reason to believe that the public is any better than the people in the government. 27%

In the focus groups, participants nearly unanimously expressed support for the idea that the public should have much more influence than it presently does. Clearly many felt that the failure to do so was a violation of a social contract embedded in the Constitution.

Moderator: Apparently, many of you feel [elected officials] make decisions according to who’s going to give them money, and who’s going to contribute to their campaign. But what should they be doing?...

Man 1: Give more respect to focus groups, like this one.
Man 2: Be a government for the people by the people. I mean, you want to know what’s going on, you want to know how to make this country a better place in which to live, let those who live here do it. You know, stick with the Constitution and what it means, what it stands for.

Responses were similar in another focus group:

Moderator: What do you mean better? Less responsive to lobbyists and special interests, but more responsive to what?
Woman: To the needs of the people. Then it becomes a real republic.
Man: To the facts, and what’s in the best interest of all, instead of what’s in the best interest of the few.

Several respondents asserted that the decisions made by members of the public, like themselves, are better guides to policy because they are not driven by self-interest. A man said "The only reason [greater public influence] would be better is that nobody’s paying me for my decision. I would base it on what I truly feel ... we would base it on what we think would be better for all the people as a whole."

Confidence in the Public’s Judgment

Overall, Americans show strong confidence in the public’s judgment. In September 1997, the Pew Center asked, "In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions?" Sixty-four percent said a good deal or a very great deal, while 35% said not very much or none at all. In September 1964, the number expressing such confidence was even higher: 77%, with only 20% expressing not very much or no confidence (Gallup).

Interestingly, the current poll also found that an overwhelming majority of Americans had more confidence in the wisdom of the public as a whole than in the views of the majority of their own party, even though the views of members of their party would presumably be closer to their own. Even more significant, when another sample was asked which they would "prefer to have the most influence on the government," an overwhelming majority said the views of the public as a whole, rather than the views of the majority of Republicans or the majority of Democrats.

Informed Sample of the Public Given More Credence than Congress

One of the more striking findings from the current poll is that a strong majority of respondents said they would have more confidence in the decisions of a random sample of Americans who were given information and a chance to deliberate on a subject than in the decisions of Congress. Respondents were given a description of what is sometimes called a "deliberative poll." 1 By a four-to-one margin, respondents expressed more confidence in the majority decisions of such a sample than the decisions of Congress. Also, 68% said the decisions of such a sample "would be more like the wishes of the majority of the public" than the decisions of Congress" (less, 25%). Fifty-seven percent said this sample "would be more ... likely to come to consensus than Congress" (less, 31%). As will be discussed below, the ability to come to consensus is seen as something positive by very strong majorities.

The view that such a sample would produce better decisions than Congress was also expressed in the focus groups. The reason given was that they would be less influenced by the corrupting influence of special interests. As one man said:

They’re not influenced by someone else giving them the money. I think it would be better for these few hundred people than for Congress. It’s going to be your own personal opinion coming from you as a person of the public—not from a decision from someone who’s paid you a bribe.

3 When elected officials make decisions, a strong majority feels that the views of the majority of the public should have more influence than the views of the official. At the same time, most Americans do feel that elected officials have an important role to play: that elected officials should not simply follow ill-informed majority opinion, but try to determine what the majority would favor if it had more complete information; and that elected officials should consult their own sense of what is right and, ideally, find policies that integrate their values as well as those of the majority.

A widely repeated discussion in American society is whether elected officials should pay more attention to their own views, or to the views of the majority of the electorate. In fact, there is a fairly strong consensus among the American public on this question. Asked to choose between the two, a very strong majority of respondents said that the views of the majority should have more influence.

This view is not simply due to the effect of the impeachment debate that was occurring at the time of the poll: when Time/CNN asked this same question in February 1993, 68% said the voters should take precedence (representatives’ judgment: 24%).

This support for giving the public precedence over elected officials leads to support for new means that allow voters to have a direct say on some questions. In a study by ATIF (conducted in November 1993 and January 1994), respondents were asked to evaluate some proposals on a 0-to-10 scale, with 0 meaning "the proposal would make our democracy work much worse," and 10 meaning the proposal would make it work "much better." The proposal to "include a voluntary questionnaire with IRS tax forms so that we can tell the government our priorities on the principal items of the federal budget" got an average response of 7.3, with 74% giving it a rating of 6 or higher. "Hav[ing] any tax increase passed by Congress submitted to a vote of the people in the next national election" got a mean of 7.0, with 66% giving it 6 or higher. "Conduct[ing] national referendums or votes on major issues" got a mean of 6.7, with 63% giving it 6 or higher.2

In one of the focus groups, participants brought up and approvingly discussed a number of ideas for public participation in policy decisions. One idea was to have a "clicker box" on one’s television to express their views on public policy issues. Another was to have a slip that asked them a number of policy questions that they would submit together with their federal tax forms. It seemed in most cases, though, that participants were expressing more of a desire to use such forms to express their views, rather than expecting that those decisions would actually become law. In another focus group, some expressed opposition to direct democracy. For example, one man expressed concerns that it would give the media too much power:

I don’t think we’re ready for that. If we went to electronic democracy as outlined by Perot, then the media is even more powerful than it is today—’cause you and I only know what we’re spoon-fed by those people.

What Role Representatives Should Play

Most Americans do feel that elected officials have an important role to play in the decisionmaking process. They do not want to eliminate the representative function of government. In the above-mentioned question that asked how much influence the public should have, on a scale of 0 to 10 only 36% gave the answer of 10.

The public does not want elected officials to simply follow superficial or ill-informed public opinion. In the focus groups, participants recognized that policymakers must make decisions on numerous issues about which the public does not have information to come to a meaningful opinion, and that on some issues the public may be misinformed. As one man said, "That’s why we have a representative who hopefully has more information on the inside of things."

At the same time, this does not mean that Americans feel that officials should ignore public opinion on issues that require specialized knowledge. Rather, the public seems to want elected officials to internalize the majority’s values and then try to assess how those values come to bear on an issue, given the greater information and time to deliberate that the elected official has. An overwhelming 85% agreed that "The goal of Congress should be to make the decisions that the majority of Americans would make if they had the information and time to think things over that Congress has." When asked, "What do you think is the more important question members of Congress should ask themselves when making decisions?" only 29% thought members should simply act as relays of public opinion, by asking themselves "What does the majority of the public think is best?" Rather, 65% thought the member should ask, "What would the majority of the public probably think was best if it was well informed about all sides of the issue?"

Americans also do want elected officials to consult their own judgment. In the focus groups, the most common concern was not that elected officials would follow their own judgment, but that they would be overly influenced by special interests (and would perhaps rationalize their special-interest-driven decisions as being prompted by their judgment). There even seems to be sentiment that elected officials need to pay more attention to what they think is right. In the current poll, an overwhelming 79% agreed that "elected officials would make better decisions if they thought more deeply about what they think is right." Apparently, it is assumed that if elected officials were more in touch with what they think is right, they would be less apt to come under the influence of special interests.

Ideally, most Americans would prefer that their representatives evaluate their own views and the views of the majority together, and develop a position that accommodates both. COPA posed three different approaches to a situation where a representative disagreed with public opinion. Only about one in four thought a representative should simply follow the majority’s will. Only one in five thought he should simply follow his own judgment. The majority preferred an option where the member would reevaluate his position and seek some integration based on the assumption that there is something valid in the majority’s viewpoint.

This latter view was echoed in comments from focus group participants. One said:

I think that politicians should use polls as a gauge on how to approach issues ... they should use the polls as a basis for digging deeper and then making another decision. Once the people [policymakers] have that information, they can make a better decision.

Another said that public opinion is "... something else to consider. And they would look at these views and opinions and say, maybe the American public does know more." Another said, "If we try to compare what the government’s doing to what the people are wanting, it’s a better checks and balances system."

4 A strong majority feels that policymakers should pay close attention to polls when making public policy, even though many are uncertain about their accuracy. Consistent with this position, a majority thinks that policymakers should be more influenced by the views of the general majority than by the vocal public that actively calls or writes their representatives.

Contrary to the widespread view that Americans do not respect political leaders who pay attention to polls, a strong majority feels that policymakers should pay close attention to them when making decisions. Asked to choose between two statements, 67% chose, "When members of Congress are thinking about how to vote on an issue, they should read up on polls on the issue, because this can help them get a sense of the public’s views," while only 26% thought that "When members of Congress are thinking about how to vote on an issue, they should not read up on polls, because this will distract them from thinking about what they think is right."

Presented two arguments, a majority (61%) even preferred members of Congress to pay attention to their approval rating, "because this gives them a general measure of whether or not they are heading in the right direction with the public." A minority (34%) thought they "should not pay attention ... because this will just make them react to every little shift in their popularity."

Other organizations have also found a positive attitude toward polls. An April 1996 Gallup poll asked whether "polls of the opinion of the public are a good thing or a bad thing in our country"; 87% said they were ‘good.’ In a March 1998 CBS News poll, 68% said they thought that "polls of public opinion on issues of the day have value to the people." An October 1998 Harris poll found that 55% said they would trust pollsters, while 38% said they would not. And in an April 1996 Gallup poll, 48% said that the number of polls conducted was about right, with the remainder evenly divided between those who thought there were too many and those who said there were not enough. In a September 1996 ABC News poll, 66% said they approved of news media using polls as part of their political coverage. When Gallup asked in January 1997 about respondents interested in reading about the polls on a number of topics, in every case a very strong majority said they would be somewhat or very interested, and on a number of issues (such as the future of Social Security) an overwhelming majority said they would be very interested.

A majority or plurality expresses the view that polls and pollsters should have more influence. In a September 1994 Time/CNN poll, 58% thought pollsters have too little influence in government, while just 30% said they have too much. In February 1999, Harris found that only 36% thought that "opinion polls have too much power and influence on Washington," while 49% thought they had too little influence. A September 1996 ABC poll found that 63% thought that "candidates for public office should use public opinion surveys as part of their campaigns," while 35% thought they should not.

Most significantly, it appears that a strong majority believes that polls ultimately serve the interests of the public as a whole. A June 1997 Pew Center poll found that 68% believe that "Most opinion polls work for ... the best interests of the general public," while 19% said they worked against it. When Gallup asked in April 1996, "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?", 74% said "better off," while 14% said "worse off."

In some ways, it is surprising that Americans express such strong support for paying attention to polls, because they also show uncertainty about their accuracy. Americans seem to be highly doubtful about the reliability of sampling. Most have a low level of confidence that the samples used in polls are effectively representative. Asked to estimate how often a poll of 1,000 scientifically selected Americans correctly reflects the attitudes of the general population, the median estimate was just 50% of the time. Other polls have also found majorities saying that such a sample is simply not representative. In June 1997 Pew asked, "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?" Only 30% said a sample could reflect the nation’s views, while 65% said it could not.

Other polls have found differing results on the question of whether polls are reliable. An ABC News poll found that an overwhelming 87% thought polls are a good (65%) or very good (22%) way "of finding out what the average American is thinking." When asked about "poll returns on matters not dealing with elections, but with public opinion toward such things as labor problems and international affairs," 64% said that such polls are "pretty nearly right most of the time," while 66% said polls are "pretty nearly right" in predicting election results (Gallup, April 1996). In a March 1998 CBS poll that asked "When you see polls saying which candidate is ahead, do you generally believe what the polls say or do you generally believe they are wrong?", a plurality of 48% said they did believe the polls, while 35% said they did not ("it depends": 11%).

The public is largely unsure how much to trust polls that it learns about through the media. A September 1996 ABC poll also found 50% saying that they "tend to believe public opinion surveys which are done by the news media," while 49% said they do not. But when a Fox poll asked whether respondents "trust the information you get from television and newspaper polls," only 38% said they did, while 62% said they did not (October 1996). When Rasmussen Research in March 1999 asked whether respondents believed that "polling results reported on television or in the newspaper ... are accurate" only 33% said yes, 44% said no and 23% said they were not sure.

In the focus groups, there was also a substantial amount of confusion about the nature of sampling, and a fairly prevalent view that polling samples are drawn from limited populations. A fair number in the group in Albuquerque felt confident that poll samples did not include areas like theirs, but only people on the east and west coasts. Nonetheless, there was a feeling that if the polls were accurate, policymakers should pay attention to them. Asked why, one woman said, "Well, it’s supposed to reflect the will of the people, give an idea of what the people want—if they are accurate."

The Vocal Public Versus the Majority Public

Consistent with support for paying attention to the majority sentiment expressed in polls, a majority (though more modest than the one that supports strong public representation) said that members of Congress should pay more attention to the views of the majority of the whole public than to the views of the vocal public that calls and writes their member. Respondents were asked to choose between two arguments. One made a strong case for giving the vocal public precedence, on the basis that "Those who care more about the issue are better informed, and are often the people most affected by the outcome." Nonetheless, a modest majority opted for the argument in favor of the majority public on the basis that "it is a principle of democracy that the views of the majority should carry more weight."

In the focus groups, people often expressed respect for the civic act of contacting Congress and deplored that they and others did not do this more frequently. But there was also a feeling that those who made such efforts might be less disinterested parties. As one man said, "You always hear from the whiners before you hear from people who are trying to do good. Most people, when they write a letter, represent their own special interest and not what they think is better for the world as a whole." Others invoked the principle that all individuals should have an equal right to representation whether or not they had the time to write or call. Addressing a hypothetical letter-writer, one man said, "You’ve got time to read the newspaper, write the letters. I’ve got two jobs. They’re going to listen to you more than they listen to me?!"

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