Describe the ways that the public opinion polls can influence voting behavior.

POL 2301, United States Government 1

Course Learning Outcomes for Unit IV Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. Explain the role of political parties in elections within the U.S. political system. 5.1 Identify the factors that motivate and hinder voting in the United States. 5.2 Describe the two stages of elections. 5.3 Describe the presidential election process.
  2. Describe the impact of media on public opinion and politics.

7.1 Describe the ways that the public opinion polls can influence voting behavior. 7.2 Discuss how the public opinion can impact public policy and politics at the local level of

government. 7.3 Define fake news.

Course/Unit Learning Outcomes

Learning Activity


Unit Lesson Chapter 7, pp. 243–280 Article: “When Citizen Engagement Becomes Too Much” Article: “The Citizens Most Vocal in Local Government” Unit IV Case Study

5.2 Unit Lesson Chapter 7, pp. 243–280 Unit IV Case Study

5.3 Unit Lesson Chapter 7, pp. 243–280 Unit IV Case Study

7.1 Unit Lesson Chapter 6, pp. 201–213, 219–221, 229–236 Unit IV Case Study

7.2 Unit Lesson Chapter 6, pp. 201–213, 219–221, 229–236 Unit IV Case Study

7.3 Unit Lesson Chapter 8, pp. 287–320 Unit IV Case Study

Required Unit Resources In order to access the following resources, click the links below. Throughout this course, you will be provided with sections of text from the online textbook American Government 2e. You may be tested on your knowledge and understanding of the material presented in the textbook as well as the information presented in the unit lesson. Chapter 6: The Politics of Public Opinion, pp. 201–213, 219–221, 229–236 Chapter 7: Voting and Elections, pp. 243–280 Chapter 8: The Media, pp. 287–320


Public Opinion, Voting and Elections, and the Media

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Ehrenhalt, A. (2018, November). When citizen engagement becomes too much. Governing.

Maciag, M. (2014, July). The citizens most vocal in local government. Governing. local-government.html

Unit Lesson In the United States, civic engagement is a critical component of democracy. As we learned in Units I and II, our democratic polity provides citizens with many possible avenues through which to participate in political society. In Unit III, we discussed how the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments and laws work to ensure that the right of citizens to engage in civic life and self-governance is protected. In your readings for Unit IV, which include Chapters 6 (select sections), 7, and 8 (select sections), you will learn about four key aspects of civic engagement that are core features of American government: public opinion, voting, elections, and the media. Protected as civil liberties and present at all levels in our system of federalism, these components of representative democracy serve as cornerstones of civic engagement. While these four cornerstones may seem only marginally related, they are, in fact, closely intertwined. In this unit, we will examine the critical ways in which the media and public opinion polling impact voter behavior and elections.

The Influence of Polls on Public Opinion

Public opinion polls have been an important feature of the American landscape since the early 1800s (Smith, 1990). They provide an important mechanism to learn about political values, public policies, political leaders, candidates for public office, and political institutions. Those running for political offices, the media, and research institutes often conduct public opinion polls. But, public opinion polls (also called surveys) are not only a way for those involved or interested in politics to gather information about what citizens think; rather, they also can be used to impart political information to citizens and potentially influence their political preferences and behaviors. Below are a few specific ways that polling can influence public opinion.

 Strategic or tactical voting: This phenomenon occurs when a voter casts a ballot for a candidate who is not their first preference but, rather, is who they believe to have a higher probability of winning the election. This perception is often based on repeated polling data, which is reporting the likely election outcomes (Stephenson et al., 2018).

 Closeness of elections as reported in polls: When polls near the election date indicate a high probability of a close election, citizens are more likely to turn out to vote in an attempt to influence the election outcome (Bursztyn et al., 2017).

 Bandwagon effect: When polls show that one candidate has a strong lead over other candidates, voters are more likely to vote for the leading candidate. At times, the bandwagon effect can cross party lines with the voters jumping onto the leading candidate’s bandwagon even though the candidate is associated with the opposing party (Balnaves, 2016).

 Political information: Polls also can provide information to voters on political candidates and issues that affect voter preferences (Snyder, 2012).

The American flag is a symbol of democracy and freedom. (McLeod-Simmons, 2019b)

Polling can help predict voter behavior. (Kontakt5956, n.d.)

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 Exit polls: This type of public opinion survey is taken the day of the election to indicate a strong front- runner, which can deter voters from voting because of their perceived belief that the election has already been decided.

 Favorability polls: These polls rate candidates on specific issues or characteristics. When a candidate receives a high rating and that rating is publicized, it can influence voters to support that candidate even if their initial support for that candidate was weak.

If conducted correctly, public opinion polls can provide accurate information about the public opinions on timely and important policy issues, views about political institutions and leadership, and attitudes regarding civic engagement. However, conducting public opinion polls is a complex undertaking. How can surveying a sample of 1,000 people provide accurate information about the entire U.S. population, which is approximately composed of 330 million people?

In order to access the following video, click the link below. Review the video Methods 101: Mode Effects, which was produced by the Pew Research Center, to learn about how they conduct polls (Kennedy, 2019). A transcript and closed captioning are available once you access the video.

The Media’s Influence on Public Opinion

Protected by the First Amendment, a free press ensures that government cannot prevent the news media from performing its roles of reporting, investigating, and scrutinizing political leaders, institutions, and public policies. In other words, a free press works to inform the public and acts as a watchdog on government. However, over the years, the news media has developed the additional role of shaping the public’s perception of politics and political leaders. Here are several ways in which the media can influence voter preferences and even elections.

 Framing political issues: Framing asks the following questions: Why does an issue matter? Who is

responsible for the problem? What should be done? Framing is how the media presents an issue and on which issues the media spotlights, which can have an impact on voter perception and voter behavior. The focus and intensity of focus can influence the views of voters and increase the likelihood that voters will support specific candidates and turnout when the voters likely would not have done so otherwise (Krutz, 2019).

 Election projections: Media conducts research and publishes data to indicate that an election will be decided by a slim margin. Voter turnout is higher when citizens perceive that the margin of election between top candidates will be narrow.

 Media bias: Media bias occurs when a media outlet deliberately publicizes partisan information about a candidate, political leader, or political issue. This partisan attention can have an important impact on voters’ perspectives of key political issues, which can, in turn, impact voting preferences (Krutz, 2019).

 Latent attitudes: While citizens often hold strong beliefs about politics or public figures, political attitudes can also be latent. This means that voter beliefs and views are present but are weak. Latent attitudes can occur when issues have a limited impact on citizens or when citizens regard certain issues as being of minimal importance. Latent attitudes often lead to a lack of interest in civic engagement. However, concentrated media attention on an issue or political figure can transform voters’ latent attitudes into strong attitudes, which can lead to active civic engagement, such as active support of a political candidate (Key, 1964).

The Changing Face of Political News

While the news media plays a role in the development and trajectory of public opinion by the way it frames issues, projects electoral outcomes, and leads and motivates citizens, a significant complication for voters is the proliferation of both inaccurate news reports and highly partisan (opinion) political communications. In order to

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prepare to cast an informed vote, citizens must filter through a vast array of information from various types of news sources. Until the past decade, Americans learned about election results, public policies, current events, international affairs, and local news from network and cable television, newspapers, and radio. However, the ways that citizens acquire their news has changed over the past few years. A recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center found that the number of Americans who get their news from an online source (e.g., websites, apps, social media) was on the rise. As of 2018, over one-third (34%) of American adults preferred to get news online rather than through any other source. While television remained the most popular platform to receive news, with 44% of Americans indicating television as their preferred new media choice, that number is on the decline (Geiger, 2019). In 2016, Pew Research Center reported that 57% of U.S. adults preferred TV as their primary source for news (Matsa & Lu, 2016). While the use of television as citizens’ key resource for news is declining, the number of Americans who report getting their news at least occasionally from online sources, including social media, is increasing. However, about two-thirds of Americans report getting their news at least occasionally from social media. Of the various social media sites, almost half of people who get their news from social media rely on Facebook (Shearer & Matsa, 2018).

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