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What we Learn from Public Opinion: Readying for the 2015 WISH-TV Ball State Hoosier Survey

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Dr. Raymond Scheele and Dr. Joseph Losco
Bowen Center for Public Affairs

Scholars who concentrate on public opinion are usually not interested in which candidate is ahead in a particular contest. Rather, the focus is on the role that public opinion plays in government and politics, including the ways in which public opinion influences laws and regulations. Scholars emphasize that public opinion is actually the opinions of many publics. Each of these publics is comprised of individuals who cluster around certain factors, such as age, cultural values, economic circumstances, political orientation, and religious beliefs. Making sense of the many “opinions” of these numerous publics requires analysis and explanatory theories that define the ways in which majority consensus emerges.

On any particular issue there may be a wide range of viewpoints. In a democracy all individual opinions are accorded equal treatment, even when the individuals expressing them may not be very knowledgeable about the issue. This does not mean that each person’s opinion has equal impact on public policies. There are intense minorities on a particular issue who can often promote their point of view with more diligence than the majority who may not see the issue being of high importance.

An opinion is the position people take on a particular issue, policy, event, or leader.  The opinion may be favorable, unfavorable, neutral, or undecided.  These opinions differ from attitudes.  Attitudes are more strongly held and often shape opinions.

An important aspect of public opinion surveys is to track how opinions on a particular issue change through time.  This aspect is referred to as longitudinal analysis.  By asking the same question through several months or even years, one can trace the trajectory of opinions on an issue.  If a plurality of individuals favoring one side of the issue year after year slowly declines and the unfavorable minority slowly begins increasing, scholars are able to detect the movement against the issue and assess the extent to which the change of opinion on the issue  may influence government policy.  The War in Iraq is a very good illustration of this longitudinal analysis.  Following September 11, there was widespread support for President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  As time went on and the military situation in Iraq and the Middle East appeared to entail a very long and drawn out military commitment, the support for the invasion and the continuation of the war became the minority position in public opinion.

The opinions on issues that Hoosiers hold almost always receive some national attention, but most polls conducted in Indiana on political issues have been fielded by political parties and interest groups.  Because the sponsors often leak only results that appear favorable to their cause, the Bowen Center for Public Affairs began conducting an annual independent scientific public opinion survey in 2008 on issues facing the state of Indiana.  And because all Hoosier citizens are impacted by policy decisions—whether or not they vote—our poll surveys all adult Hoosiers to gauge their support for various policy options being considered by state lawmakers. With the help of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, we fashion a sample that includes a representative proportion of cell phones and land-lines, a more accurate approach that many other polling operations often neglect.  Since its inception, the Hoosier Survey has become a trusted source for understanding Hoosier public opinion, often cited by national media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This month the 2015 Hoosier Survey will go into the field and ask a representative sample of Hoosiers about the top priorities facing Indiana.  The results will be released in November with our media partner, WISH TV in Indianapolis.   After the initial release on TV, all the public opinion data can be accessed on the website of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.

The 2015 Hoosier Survey will be the eighth such poll in which similar (often identical) questions have been asked through time.  This provides scholars, policymakers and citizens with information that helps explain why certain issues rise in importance and others recede.  One such example is the issue of “Protecting the Environment.”  In the 2008 Hoosier Survey, 47% of Hoosiers named this issue a top priority.  A year later this number fell to 43%.  In 2010 protecting the environment continued to decline as a top priority, with only 32% supporting it.  The decline was clear; but four years later, support for this item as a top priority climbed once again to 45%.  Why the decline, then the rebound?  The major event in the years during which support for protecting the environment eroded was the Great Recession.  As the economic downturn lengthened, top priorities changed.  Slowly the importance of protecting the environment has returned as a top priority, with the support of 45.3% of 2014 respondents.

Public opinion provides the ranges within which public policies are set.  The ways in which scientific surveys can measure these opinions set the stage for public officials to establish policies that receive the support of Hoosiers.  Stay tuned.  Results of the 2015 survey will be available early in November.