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Political Science 21A: Question Set #5. Public Opinion, Campaigns & Elections, and the Media

Public opinion refers to a collection of beliefs and attitudes regarding political issues and topics. For most people, their political opinions are based on personal beliefs and attitudes formed since an individual’s childhood. These beliefs are closely held ideologies that form the pillars of an individual’s ideals and prospects about life and politics. Personal attitudes are affected by beliefs and represent the preferences that people create based on life experiences and ideals that they hold dear. Over time, personal beliefs, and attitudes about other people and ideas becomes accepted ideologies about what they deem right for the government to do in a given situation. Psychological perspectives draw special attention to the mental basis of creating public opinions and change of attitudes. Behavioral theory explanation focuses on observable behavior and the underlying mental process that aid in the formation of attitudes and beliefs. Cognitive processing models hold that ongoing cognitive process interacts with incoming information causing the change in attitudes. Preexisting attitudes form the basis of comparison and provocation of new ideas. Socialization aid the human process of learning from different sources of information about the nature of society and the community and the way people ought to behave. Political socialization begins as early as childhood and an individual begins to form beliefs and attitudes towards political issues. Public opinion can be collectively rational when there is sufficient evidence to support it. For example, if a big percentage of people say that unemployment is the biggest challenge for a country it shows that the majority of the people hold similar opinions on the inadequacies of the society that need political intervention. However, some public opinion may not be collectively rational because it is affected by psychological biases that do not reflect the common expectations of the public (OSCRiceUniversity).

Focus groups are small, but demographically diverse groups of people whose reactions are studied in political analysis to determine the expected reaction from a larger population. The different types of focus groups include single focus groups, mini focus groups, and remote focus groups among others. One advantage of focus groups is that they are timesaving opportunities. In addition, focus groups can easily measure the reaction of a population. The drawbacks are that it is expensive, affected by moderator bias, and it can be hard to analyze. Non-scientific polling such as straw polls is based on the indiscriminate collective opinion of a people. Non-scientific polls are easy to obtain but they lack the statistical significance through sampling methods used. However, results from non-scientific polls cannot be used to represent public opinion because of the limitations of self-selecting samples. On the other hand, scientific polling utilizes statistical techniques during the process of sampling participants. The advantages of scientific polls are that they account accurately for diverse populations. However, scientific polls are too complex to execute than random polls. Besides, their potential for inaccuracy albeit extensive scientific processes is its other weakness. Scientific polling is the most preferred for accurately measuring public opinion because it uses proven scientific methods of sampling and reduces bias on diverse demographics. However, scientific polls may fail because of the possible human error and prejudice, which implies that it cannot be relied upon fully to make political decisions (Lavrakas).

Some of the factors that influence voter turnout rates during political elections include electoral competitiveness, type of elections, laws governing voter registration and voting, and the demographics of the voters. In some countries, laws that have put voting as a mandatory requirement have been passed, which increases the rate of voter turnout during election periods. The challenge faced in places where compulsory voting has been passed is it is not clear how strict the enforcement of the law must be to make it work. In addition, research has shown that a higher voter turnout rate is witnessed when the electoral systems have nationally competitive voting regions. Another institutional factor is unicameralism, which holds that voter turnout is higher in countries whose power is concentrated in one legislature since the election of a powerful body gives more incentive to vote (Blais 111-120). 

One of the factors that dictate how the media covers political issues is the government’s influence on state-owned and private media. The government may push media to make moral decisions on wrongdoing while abandoning objectivity for the public good. By imposing their will on media houses using state machinery, governments can dictate how the media covers national politics in a biased way. In some countries, media houses cover political news with bias resulting due to the external influence of advertisers as well as the attitudes of the public towards advertising. Moreover, public perception of specific political issues and topics influence the way media chooses to approach and report on these topics. Government, advertisers, and interest groups dictate conversations on political topics by influencing the way media approaches these issues and how they choose to report it to the public. These standards influence public views on policy problems, electoral contests, and political events because the media gets to set the tone of the conversation among the members of the public with a view changing their stand. In most cases, the media can be used to favor specific candidates or political opinions over others, which often reduces the trust of the public on the media. The American media can improve public opinion on political problems by minimizing external influence and preserving the integrity of the media when setting the tone for political conversations in the country (Pavelka 623-629).

Works Cited

Blais, André. “What Affects Voter Turnout?” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 111-125.

Lavrakas, P. “Encyclopedia of survey research methods.” SAGE Research Methods: Find resources to answer your research methods and statistics questions, 2008, methods.sagepub.com/Reference/encyclopedia-of-survey-research-methods.

OSCRiceUniversity. “The nature of public opinion – American government 2e.” BC Open Textbooks – Open Textbooks Adapted and Created by BC Faculty, 1 Feb. 2019, opentextbc.ca/americangovernment2eopenstax/chapter/the-nature-of-public-opinion/.

Pavelka, Jiří. “The Factors Affecting the Presentation of Events and the Media Coverage of Topics in the Mass Media.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 140, 2014, pp. 623-629.

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