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Public Opinion and Political Leaders

Johanna Martinsson's picture

A reader's comment to the blog post Leaders Who Ignore Public Opinion Lose Their Offices:

"Having worked for quite some time in public opinion research, I could not agree more with your points. “Public Opinion” indeed has become a catch all phrase for a wide range of information, starting with simple popularity questions to very in depth stakeholder assessments.

What I find interesting about the argument in the FT article is that it suggests a fairly strong negative correlation between public opinion and the politician’s success in office. However, his argument rests upon a few individuals, who were successful when researching public opinion was either non-existent or relatively new (and therefore not much used). It also ignores the shift in voting behaviors that actually made it possible for politicians to ignore the public opinion in their day to a certain degree.

The center of the FT argument is that “The more attention they pay to public opinion, the less favourably that public opinion regards them." I think that the definition of what is indeed understood by public opinion is unclear here. Quoting facebook and youtube as proxies to “public opinion” is not a valid point, as users of such media are self-selected (and therefore per se not representative).

The argument also disregards established theories of voting behavior, in which the media plays only one role among others: while one might not agree 
with the public figure of the politician, a voter still might agree with the party’s vision. Although with the rise of television in the 1970s the perceived public personae of politicians have taken over a larger role in the election process in Western Europe, research confirms that it is not the sole determinant. While in the first half of the 20th century entrenched voting behaviors and social milieus were found to be determinants of the political vote, in recent years political positions towards certain issues (environment, foreign policy, social welfare, etc) have become important elements of voting behavior – and contributed to the rise of swing voters.

While advanced public opinion surveys certainly measure the popularity, perceived competence in various fields and likability of a candidate (or a politician), for the largest part they strive to understand where their own voters, the voters of the competing parties and the undecided stand on specific issues. In the end the individual “visions” what is important and what should be done can then be compared to the party’s or the candidate’s “vision”. The data is then used to give inputs into the political process, to fine tune positions and to stress them (positions are never fully reversed because the public is against them, but they might lie dormant or are changed over time with programmatic shifts).

In this regard, ignoring the public opinion (= what the public thinks are important political issues to be addressed) is dangerous for political parties: the Green Movement in Western Europe actually was successful because it identified an unanswered political issue and positioned itself accordingly.

I completely agree with your point you stress in your blog that you should never underestimate the public. Although “the woman/man on the street” is 
sometimes considered to be not able to make informed decisions or changes the opinion too often to be relevant, I always find it enlightening to ask "the 
public" (i.e. beneficiaries) to analyze their situation and to develop recommendations for action:

Most of the time, issues come to light that were overlooked by highly informed actors – and they always empower the “public”. Who could ask for anything more?"


Kay Engelhardt

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