Gauging Public Opinion in the Age of Trump

6 June 2017, 1704 EDT

This a guest post from Robert M. Eisinger, a political science professor at Roger Williams University. He is the author of The Evolution of Presidential Polling (Cambridge University Press).

Many of us recall reading the website 538 just prior to election day, and noted that there was a 71.4% probability that Hillary Clinton would garner more than 270 Electoral College votes than Donald Trump. Despite Secretary Clinton’s amassing 2.9 million more popular votes, Mr. Trump won the Electoral College and the presidency.

The liberals and progressives’ zeitgeist had been disrupted and dislocated. The world as they knew it was no longer. Perhaps it never was.

The AAPOR [American Association of Public Opinion Research] and WAPOR [World Association of Public Opinion Research] members do not question public opinion can be measured, observed and explained to a larger polity. We are, after all, in the business of survey research, so no one should be surprised at our belief that poll data bring with it a certain degree of precision and value. Just last month, AAPOR held its annual meeting in New Orleans. Many of the papers, posters and panels concerned polling methods – especially how to improve and increase their accuracy.

But something is amiss, and what is askew significantly will affect U.S. foreign policy in the next few years and beyond. Fewer people own telephone land lines, or respond to poll queries, making it harder and arguably more expensive to conduct polls, and more uncertain if those sampled who do respond are indeed representative of larger populations (see, e.g. Pew Research Center). That the AAPOR and WAPOR cognoscenti recognize these foreboding trends is a tribute to their professional and intellectual integrity.

But different questions linking public opinion to foreign affairs also deserve interrogation. Namely, are some opinions irrationally conceived, amorphous or un-crystallized, and therefore unworthy of advancing, or even polling? What role should both elite and mass opinion, play in shaping U.S. foreign policies? How susceptible are we to elite cues, and if different citizens perceive elites differently, how will those differences affect how we govern?

Questioning the veracity and value of public opinion has a long and rich history. Alexander Hamilton succinctly warned us of the dangers of mob rule. “The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God,” he wrote. “And however generally this maxim has been quoted as believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

While Abraham Lincoln took public opinion baths, it would have hard to imagine that 18th and 19th century presidents considered citizens opinions worthy of querying as we do now. Prior to the advent of polls, public opinion and its relationship to governing primarily focused on elections, and the interconnectedness between citizens and organs of public opinion – namely but not exclusively, the media. In The American Commonwealth James Bryce wrote that the “appetite for ‘highly spiced’ or ‘sensational’ news, is enormous,” and journalists sometimes work in “unceasing haste.” The media, he wrote, were an “index and mirror” of public opinion. But given citizens’ current distrust in the media, and the self-selection we now employ in choosing the news source of our political predilections, one wonders if there are any organs of public opinion that citizens currently value and trust. Facebook pages? Twitter accounts? Today’s mirrors of public opinion refract and reflect what we select to consume, raising questions about how the media shape what we know and how we know it.

How then does one re-conceptualize public opinion, especially as it relates to a foreign policy terrain that can generous be described as bumpy. Guidance may best be provided by those who understood that the ostensible will of the people was most valuable when it was structured and crystallized, a term that gained currency in 1923 by public relations and propaganda specialist, Edward Bernays. Around the same time, in Public Opinion, New Republic co-founder Walter Lippmann argued that we made sense of our complex surroundings by creating fictions [‘pictures’] in our heads. He was especially concerned about our limited abilities to process information accurately and render it meaningful.

Walter Lippmann

While Lippmann was suspicious of an ignorant public, and the role we the people should play in decision-making, George Gallup argued that mass public opinion was indeed measurable and valuable, but that the existing straw polls were inaccurate. Improved polls, he contended, should have an enhanced and pronounced role in the future of democracy. In 1940, he and Saul Forbes Rae wrote The Pulse of Democracy: the public opinion poll and how it works, in which they proclaimed polling as an antidote to the ostensible ills of democracy. Polls would foster government by quasi-plebiscite. The polls would speak for the people, without interference or interpretation by those with proverbial skin in the political game. Lippmann was skeptical of mass opinion generating smart decisions. Gallup disagreed, and thought that polls were a needed elixir to powerful interest groups. 

But as polls were refined, so too grew criticisms of their validity. In The Pollsters: public opinion, politics and democratic leadership [1949], Lindsay Rogers stated that polls emphasized majority points of view, but that minority viewpoints also demanded voice. Furthermore, polls impeded or enervated deliberation and compromise. Polls emphasized declarative responses to questions, easily digested, without any context or understanding of meaning behind the responses provided.

One year prior, in 1948, the sociologist Herbert Blumer wrote “Public Opinion and Public Opinion Polling” in which he too challenged the polls’ merits. To Blumer, polls were flawed both because they misidentified what constitutes public opinion, and they also inaccurately and implicitly conceptualized individuals as divorced from group interaction. “Its current sampling procedure forces a treatment of society as if society were only an aggregation of disparate individuals.” This point of view, later advanced by Pierre Bourdieu in an article titled “Public Opinion Does Not Exist”, contends that public opinion, without some semblance of group dynamics, is just a response, often unworthy of substantive analysis.

The literature cited above (and additional work, including pseudo-opinions research by George Bishop and his colleagues, and Bishop’s book, The Illusion of Public Opinion: fact and artifact in American Public Opinion Polls), underscore that not all opinions are alike; some expressed opinions are more meaningful than others.

Recent examples from the news reinforces the need to reevaluate how we think about vox populi, specifically, how susceptible we are to elite cues in forming our opinions. Both in the 2016 presidential primary and the general campaign, Donald Trump expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russia in ways that current Republican presidential candidates had not. After his victory, with few exceptions, many Republican members of Congress, and Republican voters appear to share those sentiments, at least for now. But there appears to be no such expressed sentiment among the GOP towards other regimes with which we have had a checkered past, including Cuba. More recently, there are news accounts that the Trump administration is considering returning two diplomatic compounds, in Maryland and Long Island, to Russia. One can reasonably surmise that if President Obama had expressed chummier relations with Vladimir Putin, it would have been met with skepticism, or derision, or both.

Similarly, candidate Trump campaign repeatedly questioned Secretary Clinton’s sloppy email usage. Now there are accusations that President Trump may have communicated sensitive, classified information. ‘Leaking’ to the press about foreign affairs by administrative officials is as old as dirt. One would be hard pressed to locate outrage by GOP members of Congress about executive leaks during the Obama years, but now it is a matter of their focused (and I might add, arguably deserved) attention.

Foreign policy experts have three options in interpreting conservatives’ attitudes and opinions toward Russia, relations with other countries, and executive branch leaks. They can discount public opinion changes, and assume that such a ‘flip’ is wholly the artifact of regime change (Obama to Trump). That is, now that our guy is in, he’s correct, or at minimum, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. This phenomenon is sometimes known as partisan absolution.

Alternatively, they can argue that public opinion has genuinely and organically shifted, and that we the people now want more cordial (yet simultaneously firm) relations with the Russians, especially as it relates to combatting terrorism. But as Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro’s tell us in The Rational Public, public opinion generally moves slowly, so slowly in fact that accelerated change of this magnitude is unlikely to occur over the course of weeks. Similarly, Michael Delli X. Carpini and Scott Keeter’s What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters (1996), Arthur Lupia’s Uninformed: why people seem to know so little about politics and what we can do about it (2015), and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists: why elections do not produce responsive government (2016) advance sobering views of our limited political appetites and digestive capabilities. Many of us may not be able to locate Ukraine on a map, nor could we explain with any coherence any aspect of foreign affairs, real politik, or much of any public policy, foreign or domestic.

Finally, they can split the difference and argue that both options are viable, but that opinions on terrorism remain salient and paramount, and all other issues (leaks, human rights abuses, negotiating with non-democratic regimes) are unimportant to most of us, regardless of political ideology. This option has its merits, but it avoids more provocative and timely questions, namely, how are opinions formed, and what role should public opinion play shaping or guiding domestic and foreign affairs?

Answering these questions will require reevaluating existing theories about elite cues. Work by Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld, V.O. Key, Jr., and John Zaller all provide potent and important arguments worth reading. Space constraints do not allow summaries of these important texts. But what is sorely needed now is a discussion about how citizens talk to one another about domestic and foreign affairs, and whether elite cues such as tweets from the president are considered more (or less) legitimate than investigative journalism from the Washington Post or Fox News. Absent systematic research, one can only hypothesize. I would argue that the nature and composition of ‘elites’ (elite media and political elites) have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Foreign affairs/IR experts have not queried political elites (e.g., senators) about if or how they listen to their constituents when making foreign-affairs related decisions, nor do they know how masses currently consume and absorb information about world affairs. Instead, I suspect, old models that weigh presidential popularity, and/or ask constituents if they favor or oppose a particular issue position, prevail. Such models are likely moribund in the age of Twitter and President Trump, who was elected largely to disrupt and agitate the status quo.

Jerome H. Spingarn’s “These Public Opinion Polls: how they work and what they signify” (Harpers, 1938) provides a vatic warning about the limitations of polls. “Seeming inconsistent concepts often exist side by side in people’s heads.” “It would be unwise,” he continued, “in a representative democracy, and particularly in an age of specialization in which citizens are disinclined to be troubled with the minutiae of governmental affairs, for members of legislatures to place too great weight on snap answers given to a private corps of interviewers, or to abdicate the use of their own discretion in favor of this new vox populi.”

If we are serious about investigating the relationship between elite and mass opinions, we should focus less on the weekly ebb and flow of presidential popularity, and instead explore the seemingly inconsistent pictures in our heads. We should consider the possibility that personality trumps policy [no pun intended], that the meaning of ‘conservatism’ may have been evolving over decades, and that it took a charismatic leader to marshal those changing attitudes, however ambiguous and unrefined they may be. We would be wise to team with sociologists and psychologists, to understand better the anger and anomie that has imbued large segments of the populace. We should engage in extensive focus groups and long interviews with citizens – about identity, patriotism, and national security. Some of those discussions may appear contradictory, but if we value public opinion, and think it should play any role in shaping foreign affairs, we will need more vibrant textures and colors of public opinion than we are currently seeking and consuming.