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Public Opinion & Voter Turn Out

by Christopher Wager (writer), Salem,,, May 12, 2009

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Opposite sides of different coins

        Public Opinion and voter turnout. Does one influence the other? In the study of political science, it has been taught that although public officials certainly have the opportunity to listen to the voice of the people that they don’t always choose to. On the other hand, public officials are not totally without their wits and do weigh public opinion against other forces that come to bear when the time comes to cast their yea or nay. Forces such as lobbying influences, re-election issues and their own personal feelings on a particular issue.  As we turn the corner into the new century, it has become evident that sampling of what pollsters believe to an accurate sample of public majority opinion is playing a larger and larger role in today’s politics. Rather than the single or many voice trying to be heard. We have (by this I mean the media has become survey and poll happy).  From public an opinion on which candidate has the best hair to looking forward to what exit polls might protect in November.

         However, what does this mean? Are the candidates really building their platforms on public opinion polls? Early in their presidential campaign lunches, candidates from both parties were reported to have a reaction of surprise when confronted with the issue of illegal immigration. Many of them had made comments of how they had not realized that this issue was at the forefront of many voters’ minds. Is it possible that such heavy weight contenders for the presidency could be so far out of touch with public opinion or is that simply is a political defense against facing down such a hot issue so early in a campaign? Many of us grow up through an older political machine. Where you watched the primaries and conventions on a black and white TV. Where most of the parties were still controlled by party biases. Never would the candidates of today have stood a chance of even making it to a ticket. We listen to our families debates around the kitchen table, parents, grandparents, friends; all would have strong feelings and passions about who they felt was the best “man” for the job. Even only, the fact that a certain candidate happened to be from our home state influenced the way we perceived politics. Most likely depending on whether your father’s collar was blue or white dictated which of the parties had the greater influences. Today other factors come in to play as an attempt to influence our thinking about a certain candidate or party.


          Although after a lifelong love affair with a party prevents or diminishes party “jumping” it doesn’t stop the opposing parties from trying to cast their influence. Sometimes with a backfire effect. According to a report put out by The Virginia News Letter from The University of Virginia, public opinion regarding campaign advertising does affect voter turnout. Moreover, the affects of positive and negative ads to degrees have a greater or less than impact on the voter turnout. (By Paul Freedman). The behavior of the candidates with regards on how they treat each other, does affect how the voters will react when it comes time to vote. Heavy personal attacks score negatively with voters across most of the age groups. To take the debate one step further another report released by Christopher B. Mann of Yale University Department of Political Science and Institution for Social and Policy Studies titled Unintentional Voter Mobilization: Does Participation in Pre-election Surveys Increase Voter Turnout? In which a study was conducted to find out to what degree conducting public surveys had on voter turnout. Their findings concluded that when voters were contacted by letter in advance of a person-to-person question or survey; voter turnout did increase by 1.2% allowing for a .05% error. However, those not contacted by letter had little or no affect on voter turnout. The questions used in the survey did not contain any language pertaining to voting directly. Only language dealing with current affairs and political topics in general. Some skeptics of similar past attempts at gathering such information criticized it because of its possible influence in the outcome of an election. (Mann)  To address to consciences that U.S voter turnout falls behind many other democratic countries due to the fact voting requires a small amount of participation by the citizens, where as in other countries voter registration is automatic.

        Another reason is the U.S. does not put great effort in encouraging voting or impose fines for those who do not. (Patterson) However, to contradict these findings Dr. Michael McDonald of the Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University has offered an opposing argument.  “Statistics on voter turnout shows that the much-lamented decline in voter participation is an artifact of the way in which it is measured. The most typical way to calculate the turnout rate is to divide the number of votes by what is called the “voting-age population” which consists of everyone age 18 and older residing in the United States. This includes persons ineligible to vote, mainly non-citizens and ineligible felons, and excludes overseas eligible voters. When turnout rates are calculated for those eligible to vote, a new picture of turnout emerges, which exhibits no decline since 1972.” (McDonald)Presidential Turnout Rates for Voting-Age Population (VAP) and Eligible Population (VEP)

          In conclusion, opinion will continue to play an ever-growing role in the future outcome of our democracy. With the help and encouragement of our elected officials, the citizenry must police itself in the area of voter participation on all levels. One cannot sit back and rest on the false security that their best interests are being looked after.    

Works Cited

By Paul Freedman, L. Dale Lawton. “The Virginia News Letter.” may 2000. The Virginia News Letter. Jan 2007 .Mann, Christopher B. “Yale University Department of Political Science.” Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Jan 2007 .McDonald, Dr. Michael. “United States Election Project.” United States Election Project. Jan 2007 .Patterson, Thomas E. “The American Democracy.” Patterson, Thomas E. The American Democracy. McGraw-Hill, 1990. 556. 



About the Writer

Christopher Wager is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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