"How much attention did you pay to this week’s Federal Budget?" For many respondents to this week’s Essential Research Poll, the answer was not much — 44 per cent said that they paid little or no attention to the budget. But in the same survey, 80 per cent were able to express an opinion about whether the budget would be good for them and people like them. At Larvatus Prodeo Mark Bahnisch writes:
I’ve always thought that almost all polling should ask questions about the degree to which respondents are interested in particular issues, and how strongly their stated preferences are held. We’d get a much more realistic picture of public opinion, that way. Of course, we’d also get one which would reduce a lot of the noise and fury of the media narrative to total irrelevance.
Mark’s got a point. In his 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, political scientist John Zaller writes that "citizens do not typically carry around in their heads fixed attitudes on every issue on which a pollster may happen to inquire; rather, they construct ‘opinion statements’ on the fly as they confront each new issue." When people construct these opinion statements they "make greatest use of ideas that are, for one reason or another, most immediately salient to them — at the ‘top of the head’".
According to Zaller, most people pay little attention to politics. But nevertheless, they are able to provide the responses pollsters need in order to make newsworthy statements about what the public believe, what they want and what they are likely to do when the next election comes around. The reason they (or perhaps I should say ‘we’) are able to answer the questions is because they are exposed to a stream of news and information through the media. Zaller writes:
… most people on most issues are relatively uncritical about the ideas they internalize. In consequence, they fill up their minds with large stores of only partially consistent ideas, arguments and considerations. When asked a survey question, they call to mind as many of these ideas as are immediately accessible in memory and use them to make choices among the options offered to them. But they make these choices in great haste — typically on the basis of the one or perhaps two considerations that happen to be at the ‘top of the head’ at the moment of response (p 36).
Because of this, responses to similar sounding questions can be remarkably unstable. The ‘considerations’ respondents call to mind are often talking points in favour of one position of another — points made by subject experts, activists, politicians and commentators which are packaged into bite-sized pieces and reproduced in the media. When people have little interest in an issue, they make little effort to integrate these considerations. This is why Zaller argues that they are not ‘true attitudes’.
When responding to a pollster’s questions, changes in question wording or question order can affect which considerations come to mind. And at different times, different considerations are more likely to be ‘top of mind’. For example, it may be that ‘public opinion’ on climate change appeared to shift simply because talking points critical of climate science became much more available in the media.
The thing that really matters isn’t how people respond to question in a poll today. It’s how they will respond politically in the future. In his essay ‘Public opinion does not exist’, French theorist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that:
It is known that opinion polls are very bad a detecting the latent state of opinion and, more precisely, the movement of opinion. This is because the situation in which they grasp opinions is entirely artificial. In the situations in which opinion is constituted, and especially in crisis situations, people are faced with constituted opinions, opinions supported by groups, so that choosing between opinions clearly means choosing between groups. That is the principle of the politicizing effect of a crisis: one has to choose between groups which define themselves politically, and to take more and more positions on the basis of explicitly politically principles. In fact, what seems to me to be important is that opinion polls treat public opinion as a simple sum of individual opinions, collected in a situation which is ultimately that of the polling booth, where the individual secretively expresses an isolated opinion in isolation. In real situations, opinions are forces and relations between opinions are power relations between groups.
This is remarkably similar to Zaller’s position. In a paper on the concept of latent opinion, Zaller argues that skilled politicians will ignore opinion polls when they know currently unpopular measures will lead to popular results. The trick is to predict how voters will respond in a changed set of circumstances.
As Mark suggests, the media narrative built up around poll results may be nothing more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing." ‘Public opinion’ is often little more than the echo of conflicts between rival elites.