Lingering Debates and Innovative Advances:
The State of Public Opinion Research

Kevin J. Mullinix
University of Kansas

The intersection of public policy and public opinion has fostered the development of an extensive body of scholarly literature. Much of the research strives to disentangle the relationship between policy and opinion. For this rich area of study to continue to flourish, it is imperative that innovations in public opinion are grasped and utilized. In this essay, I synthesize the most significant advances made to policy related public opinion research in the last few years. Although debates from previous decades persist, theoretical and methodological advances lead to an increased comprehension of the nuances and complexities of the relationship between public opinion and policy.


"The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationships, are their public opinions." — Walter Lippmann (1922)

It is fair to say that researchers today hold a clearer understanding of "the pictures inside the heads of these human beings" than when Lippmann first wrote this description of public opinion. Modern public opinion scholars are applying advances from multiple disciplines. These breakthroughs lead to an increased comprehension of how individuals process information, the influence of media, and the impact of deliberation. Some newer approaches highlight the role of affect, personality, and genetics, but classic debates in the literature persist. There are still disagreements surrounding the precise linkage between public opinion and policy, and the ability of individuals to form opinions and ideologies.

The intersection of public policy and public opinion yields a wealth of scholarly literature. The dynamic connection between policy and opinion is the subject of multifarious empirical and normative analyses. For this rich area of study to continue to be fruitful, it is imperative that the most recent findings in the arena of public opinion are understood and utilized. In this essay I synthesize the most significant substantive and theoretical contributions made to policy related public opinion research in the last few years. Nevertheless, mine is not an exhaustive examination of the literature in public opinion. Instead, I highlight several key areas of public opinion research in the subsections of this essay. Each section should not be perceived as entirely distinct. Instead, the topical and theoretical subsections should be viewed as a set of interwoven and interrelated facets of public opinion.

The essay is divided into several sections. First, the progress made in media studies is examined. A second section focuses on information processing and opinion formation. Next, developments related to ideological constraint, issue preferences, and polarization are highlighted. I then explore recent findings on the linkages between public opinion and public policies, and follow up with a presentation of the progress in deliberative democracy research. In only brief sections developments related to genetics, methodology, trust in government, and race and immigration are discussed. Finally, the significance of the theoretical and empirical developments and how they lead to a better understanding of the complex relationship between public opinion and policy is discussed.

Public Opinion and the Media

To grasp the relationship between public opinion and public policy, it is critical that researchers comprehend the channels through which people receive information. For years, a burgeoning area of research examined the power of media to frame its communications. Now, the framing literature moves beyond solely examining the influence of a single frame, and instead analyzes the influence of multiple competitive frames (Chong & Druckman, 2007; Hartman & Weber, 2009; Jerit, 2009). Competing frames create a setting that not only allows for a thorough analysis of different types of frames, but also an environment akin to the real world. Analyses demonstrate that framing effects depend more on the quality of frames than the frequency, and that competition between frames alters their influence (Chong & Druckman, 2007). These researchers also argue that levels of political knowledge are important predictors of the impact of competing frames.

Another line of research examines competition between frames and cues, and provides analysis over time (Druckman, Lynn Hennessy, Charles, & Webber, 2010). The authors demonstrate that the impact of frames and cues is dependent on the processing-style of individuals, but the inclusion of both competition and time is critical to the study of political communication. The literature is increasingly moving toward an understanding of the processes by which issue frames impact opinion. This requires not only an examination of differing frames, but also an emphasis on the receiver's level of political awareness and strength of values. Thus, issue frames impact opinion through different processes dependent on characteristics of the receiver (Slothuus, 2008).

A related theoretical concept in media studies is priming. Recent studies document the breadth and limitations of this concept. One prominent domain within the priming literature concerns political campaigns. Some evidence suggests that in presidential debates both the candidates' remarks and the media's instant analyses prime various considerations for viewers (Fridkin, Kenney, Gershon, Shafer, & Woodall, 2007). Similar to the framing studies, these effects relate to levels of sophistication and degree of partisanship. The concepts of repetition and time also extend to priming studies. Repetition of primes in campaigns over time is found to have a longer cumulative and enduring impact than recent and transitory primes (Claibourn, 2008). Other studies examining differing amounts of priming, often termed the dosage hypothesis, find less consistent results (Malhotra & Krosnick, 2007). Even presidential campaign appearances on late night comedy programs lead to significant priming effects and provide substantive policy information (Parkin, 2010). Other research examines the importance of subliminal primes and implicit measures of attitudes (Kam, 2007a; Weinberger & Westen, 2008). Despite the diversity of priming studies, there is still debate concerning the existence and applicability of the concept. One challenge asserts that media attention to an issue provides information to viewers who learn and change opinions in a manner that is distinct from what was previously described as priming (Lenz, 2009).

As technology has fostered the development of diverse media outlets that can present competing frames, the topic of selective information exposure is increasingly important for understanding opinion. There is solid evidence for selective-exposure across several media types (Stroud, 2008). There is strong support for the "issue public hypothesis" that individuals seek out information on policies they perceive as important, and modest support for the "anticipated agreement hypothesis" that people seek information about candidates they expect to agree with (Iyengar, Hahn, Krosnick, & Walker, 2008). Other research reveals that individuals left and right of center who couple their cable news with online news content are more liberal and conservative than those who do not (Nie, Miller III, Golde, Butler, & Winneg, 2010). Additionally, the authors find that these individuals are more interested in niche issues. Media types and coverage are even linked to levels of policy-specific knowledge (Barabas & Jerit, 2009; Jerit, Barabas, & Bolsen, 2006).

For policy scholars to understand the role of public opinion in the policy process, they must grasp the intricate relationship between media and opinion. These studies illuminate the significance of a few of the most groundbreaking studies on framing, priming, and selective exposure. The research on framing and priming effects over time could be linked to policy change over time. Perhaps selective exposure could be tied to polarization in opinion and related policy gridlock. This research is pivotal to how individuals receive information and the opinions formed about public policies.

Information Processing and Opinion Formation

Innovations in psychology and research methodology are beginning to help isolate the processes and mechanisms through which people process information and form opinions. In recent years, a large body of literature developed around a theory of motivated reasoning (Burdein, Lodge, & Taber, 2006; Kim, Taber, & Lodge, 2010; Lebo & Cassino, 2007; Lodge & Taber, 2005; Taber, Cann, & Kucsova, 2009; Taber & Lodge, 2006). The theory unites affect and cognition to assert that an individual's prior attitudes toward people, groups, and issues will bias how he or she selects and processes new information concerning those topics. The theory is often linked to the "hot cognition hypothesis" which argues that "all sociopolitical concepts are affect laden" (Lodge & Taber, 2005). Motivated reasoning and the hot cognition hypothesis are often coupled with on-line processing models. In sum, individuals develop affective charges concerning various topics over time, and these prior motivations significantly influence how people process new information. It is a theory which highlights the primacy and automaticity of affect. When employing this theory, strong empirical evidence is presented for three related hypotheses. First, an attitude congruence bias where people view evidence that supports their prior attitudes as more compelling. Second, a disconfirmation bias where people counter-argue evidence that is incongruent with prior attitudes. Third, attitude polarization is the result of biases promoting more extreme attitudes (Taber & Lodge, 2006; Taber et al.). These effects heighten with strong priors and high levels of political sophistication.

Another form of information processing accentuates a micro-level theory of issue definition. Wood and Vedlitz (2007, p. 552) suggest that "people process information about policy issues through a filter that emphasizes past assessments, ideology, background, social cues, and the continuing intrusion of new information." The result is that most issue definitions remain stable over time, but new information of a sufficient magnitude can produce significant punctuations in issue definitions.

Other research demonstrates that interpretations, not factual beliefs, drive opinions (Gaines, Kuklinski, Quirk, Peyton, & Verkuilen, 2007). The authors show that respondents hold fairly accurate beliefs about facts concerning the war in Iraq. Despite possessing similar factual beliefs, partisans interpret the facts in predictably different ways. In addition, individuals who are better informed are more likely to effectively mold their interpretation of facts to bolster their partisan positions.

A burgeoning area of research in public opinion hinges upon recent advances in the study of emotions. Much of this literature relates to affective intelligence theory and distinct emotions (Civettini & Redlawsk, 2009; Druckman & McDermott, 2008; Gross, 2008; MacKuen, Wolak, Keele, & Marcus, 2010; Petersen, 2010; Small & Lerner, 2008; Valentino, Banks, Hutchings, & Davis, 2009; Valentino, Hutchings, Banks, & Davis, 2008). This line of research attempts to understand the linkages between particular emotions and opinions, information seeking, and memory. One theme is an emphasis on moving beyond positive and negative emotions, and dissects the differences between negative emotions of anxiety and anger (Druckman & McDermott, 2008; Petersen, 2010; Valentino et al.).

An emerging area of study finds value in the linkage between personalities and politics (Mondak, Hibbing, Canache, Seligson, & Anderson, 2010). Research suggests that openness to new experiences and conscientiousness are connected to political orientations and attitudes (Carney, Jost, Gostling, & Potter, 2008). Other research links personality traits to political, economic, and social attitudes. For example, one study shows that the effect of personality traits is often as large as education or income in predicting ideology, and that the relationship between personality and ideology varies along racial lines (Gerber, Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010).

These breakthroughs in information processing and opinion formation help explain how people filter information and employ biases in their opinions of policies. These particular studies introduce novel predictors for policy support and allow for a more thorough and nuanced understanding of the likelihood of policy change as well as the capacity for policy learning.

Issue Preferences, Ideology, and Polarization

Recent research also engages the enduring debates over the ability of citizens to express genuine preferences, demonstrate ideological constraint, and become polarized over time (Campbell, Miller, Converse, & Stokes, 1960; Converse, 1964; Miller & Shanks, 1996; Page & Shapiro, 1982; Zaller, 1992). One study finds structured and stable issue preferences for individuals, and asserts that measurement is pivotal (Ansolabehere, Rodden, & Snyder, 2008). The authors argue in support of surveys using multiple measures rather than individual survey items. In an effort to reduce measurement error, they employ structural models and average a large number of survey items on the same broadly defined issue. They assert that once this error is reduced, issue preferences approach party identification in coherence and in the predictive power of presidential vote choice. An analysis that estimates ideology on the same scale as candidate positions, finds meaningful ideologies strongly relate to policy proposals considered in Congress (Jesse, 2009). Other research demonstrates that partisanship is more ideological and more issue based along liberal and conservative divisions than it was in the 1970s (Bafumi & Shapiro, 2009). Using Bayesian Item Response Theory, there is support for a multidimensional conception of ideological preferences, where it is possible for individuals to hold liberal preferences in one dimension and conservative preferences in another (Treier & Hillygus, 2009).

A theme woven through decades of research focuses on citizens' evaluations of political parties. This literature has implications for voting behavior, mass opinion, and unquestionably, public policy. Recent studies explicitly test competing theories and find strong support for valence models in the United States, Canada, and Britain (Clarke, Kornberg, & Scotto, 2009; Clarke, Sanders, Stewart, & Whiteley, 2004; 2009). In valence models, leaders and parties are evaluated on their actual and anticipated performance in achieving consensually agreed-upon policy goals, or valence issues (Clarke et al.). Individuals rely heavily on heuristic leader images and partisan attach- ments. Here, partisan attachment is viewed as a storehouse of accumulated informa- tion about past performance that is continually updated. In these studies, valence models have outperformed prominent sociological and spatial models. This research has ramifications for issue preferences and public perception of policymakers.

Despite a consensus on ideological polarization at the elite level in the United States, public opinion scholars continue to disagree about the existence or extent of polarization for the mass public and its implications for policymaking (Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008; Claassen & Highton, 2009; Fiorina, Abrams, & Pope, 2008; Hetherington & Weiler, 2009; Levendusky, 2010). Research finds dramatic increases in ideological polarization in the mass public, and these divisions are most extreme among more interested and informed citizens (Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008). However, others challenge many of these assertions, and attribute the conflicting findings to differences in measurement (Fiorina et al.). Some researchers take a more nuanced view and suggest that only well-informed individuals respond to elite polarization by becoming more partisan in their views (Claassen & Highton, 2009). It is also clear that elite polarization brings about more attitude and voting consistency among ordinary citizens (Levendusky, 2010). Although the debate over ideology and polarization continues, these studies contribute to our understanding of the policy process and the likelihood of policy change. In addition, this research indicates that some policy problems may be more politically intractable than we had previously believed.

Public Opinion and Public Policy—Direction?

A primary theme at the intersection of opinion and policy concerns the direction and linkage between the two concepts. Does public opinion drive policy, or do policies influence opinions? V.O. Key (1961, p. 7) states "Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense." The debate lingers as there is evidence in support of each direction depending on the topic, data, and method of analysis.

Research that examines state-level gay rights policies finds a high degree of responsiveness to policy-specific opinion (Lax & Phillips, 2009a). However, the authors find that the relationship between opinion and policy varies significantly across issues, often in respect to salience. Including variables of salience and institutional friction, one study demonstrates that policies are more responsive to opinion at the agenda-setting stage than policymaking at the decision-making stage (Jones, Larsen-Price, & Wilkerson, 2009). Where institutional friction or transaction costs are high, responsiveness is mitigated. When the salient issue of the death penalty is coupled with elective state supreme courts, mass opinion can influence court composition and judge behavior (Brace & Boyea, 2008). Another study finds little evidence that the Supreme Court responds strategically to public opinion, but finds partial support that the Court responds to the same social forces that influence the public (Giles, Blackstone, & Vining, 2008). Examining county-level policies, other researchers find that social service spending varies as a function of ideological orientation, and is conditioned by differing institutional structures (Percival, Johnson, & Neiman, 2009). Criminal justice policies also respond to public preferences for more or less punitive policies (Nicholson-Crotty, Peterson, & Ramirez, 2009).

An analysis of mass feedback to welfare reform policy finds that the policy produces few changes in public opinion (Soss & Schram, 2007). The authors also present propositions for when mass feedback is possible. Another line of research reveals how the nature of a Supreme Court decision impacts people's acceptance, even if they are ideologically predisposed to disagree with the outcome (Zink, Spriggs, & Scott, 2009). The authors find that when the Court issues a unanimous decision and follows precedent, rather than a divided decision and overruling precedent, people are more likely to agree with and accept the decision. The influence of policy elite's endorsements is also discussed (Bartels & Mutz, 2009). They present evidence that the Court bears persuasive power to move public opinion based on multiple processes of influence, and Congress maintains a conditional ability to move opinion that is more potent than was previously understood. Thus, there is evidence in support of both opinion driving policy and elites influencing public opinion. All theoretical models of the policy process include public opinion in some manner. The studies discussed in this section can help policy researchers better understand the complexity of public opinion's role in the policy process.

Deliberative Democracy and Communication Networks

Another realm of public opinion research with normative and empirical implications focuses on deliberative democracy and communication networks. Mutz (2006) analyzes deliberative democracy, and isolates who is likely to discuss politics with people holding oppositional viewpoints, when it occurs, and its consequences. She finds that people seek homogeneity and civility. In doing so, cross-cutting talk occurs in non-intimate networks, but political discussion is most likely in an intimate setting. Individuals who are most knowledgeable and hold extreme views are the least likely to be exposed to disagreement. Thus, the advantages of deliberation are awarded to few individuals. Mutz notes that exposure to opposition can increase awareness for the reasoning underlying opposing views, can increase understanding of the rationale for one's own views, and can enhance tolerance. However, exposure to opposing views can also negatively impact political participation. Deliberation and public decision-making is linked to polarization (Stasavage, 2007). One study demonstrates that discursive activities are not strongly influenced by demographic traits, but are instead driven primarily by social and political capital (Jacobs, Cook, & Delli Carpini, 2009). They find that face-to-face deliberation is tied to increased participation. Other research links deliberative democracy to discursive representation that promotes discourse in existing government institutions and the broader public sphere (Dryzek & Niemeyer, 2008). Research finds that most participants' views toward same-sex marriage and sexual minority rights remain unchanged after deliberating (Wojcieszak & Price, 2010). The authors connect deliberation with confirmation bias research, and find that those strongly opposed to such policies, become even more opposed after discussions. On the other hand, strong proponents do not polarize their views, but are slightly less favorable toward same-sex marriage and sexual minority rights after disagreements.

A related line of research specifically addresses communication networks. Political discussion can stimulate argumentation which impedes discussion (Huckfeldt & Mendez, 2008). They demonstrate that this combination helps explain patterns of disagreement in democratic politics. Research on friendship networks reveals a durable and significant influence of friends looking to each other for advice and information, conditioned by issue salience and levels of awareness (Parker, Parker, & McCann, 2008). There is evidence that micro political communication networks do not avoid controversies in the larger political environment (Huckfeldt, 2007). He also demonstrates that perceptions of the opinions of others are less accessible with controversial issues, and that communication between two citizens is most effective with such issues. Another line of work amalgamates the social network literature with affect and emotions to find that disagreement can depolarize emotions toward political candidates (Parsons, 2010). Previous literature surrounding group composition effects is challenged in a study that finds only sporadic and weak evidence of group influence (Farrar, Green, Green, Nickerson, & Shewfelt, 2009). However, social influence is demonstrated by Fein, Goethals, and Kugler (2007) who show that exposure to other people's reactions significantly impacts perceptions of presidential debates. Deliberation and social networks have a well-documented influence on public opinion. These concepts are instrumental to how the public thinks about problems in society and whether they support proposed solutions.


For decades, public opinion research emphasized the role of environmental and socialization forces in the construction of attitudes. In recent years, this research is coupled with genetic breakthroughs. Hatemi et al. (2009a) examine longitudinal political attitudes of twins, and find a sizeable genetic influence in early adulthood that remains stable throughout adult life. They state that "offspring begin with the attitudes learned from their parents, but as they leave home, their own experiences and individual genetic disposition interact to modify those attitudes" (p. 1152). Genetic research in politics is used to evaluate specific opinions and concepts such as social trust and the "gender gap" (Hatemi, Medland, & Eaves, 2009b; Sturgis et al., 2010). In addition to genetics, evolutionary biological theory is also applied to political attitudes and opinions (Alford & Hibbing, 2004). Parental transmission and socialization forces are not relegated to an inferior theoretical position. Instead, there continues to be strong evidence in support of parental social influence, especially in consistently politicized families (Jennings, Stoker, & Bowers, 2009).

Advances in Methods

Although there have been many methodological advances in the study of opinion, I focus on a limited set of innovations in statistics, experiments, and survey techniques that are relevant to public opinion and policy research. Lax and Phillips (2009b) compare the performance of two methodological estimates of state-level public opinion. They analyze disaggregation of national surveys by states, and simulations employing multilevel modeling and post stratification by population share (MRP). They find that both approaches work well under ideal conditions, but MRP generally performs better. Disaggregation of state level data from national surveys often requires large samples pooled over extended time periods. They argue MRP should be used when samples are small to medium, but its advantages are less likely to be worth implementation costs when samples are large.

Experimental methodology is increasingly popular and diverse. Its growth in application, impact, and prominence is well documented (Druckman, Green, Kuklinski, & Lupia, 2006). The authors suggest that the experimental method is "a generally accepted and influential approach" (p. 634). A recurring issue in experimental research is the recruitment of subjects. A recent study broadens the subject base beyond university students to include campus staff for laboratory research (Kam, Wilking, & Zechmeister, 2007b). They find that campus staff has higher response rates, and few discernable differences from the general local population. Thus, campus staff members present a propitious opportunity for an alternative convenience sample in experimental research.

Many public opinion studies include measures of political knowledge, sophistication, or awareness. In recent years, the measurement of political knowledge is being reexamined and scrutinized (Gibson & Caldeira, 2009; Miller & Orr, 2008; Prior & Lupia, 2008; Sturgis, Allum, & Smith, 2008). Providing respondents with time or monetary incentives, Prior and Lupia (2008) find that existing measures of knowledge confound political knowledge with motivation and underestimate recall of political information. Other research debates the inclusion of "don't know" options in knowledge questions (Miller & Orr, 2008; Sturgis et al.).

In regard to surveys, an increasingly important concern is the relationship between the growth of cell-phone only households and under-coverage error in the use of random-digit-dialing techniques. The debate over how to handle this concern cannot be addressed in the confines of this essay. However, it should be noted that the implications for this issue and techniques to ameliorate possible problems are under examination (Ansolabehere & Schaffner, 2010; Blumberg & Luke, 2007; Ehlen & Ehlen, 2007).

Trust in Government

Voluminous literature examines the dynamics of trust in government in the United States. Past research often pointed to the performance of the economy, the president, and Congress as explanations for levels of trust. A common theme in this research and the most recent literature is an attempt to explain why levels of trust remain below those reported in the 1950 s and 1960 s. One analysis suggests that social capital accounts for the decline in trust over the last forty years (Keele, 2007). Other research looks to the priming literature and argues that people are using different and less favorable criteria to evaluate government than were used in the past (Hetherington & Rudolph, 2008). It is not enough for citizens to feel that they have a voice in politics, but they must also believe they possess influence in order to foster political trust and policy satisfaction (Ulbig, 2008). The quality and quantity of information distributed to individuals also influences levels of trust (Cook, Jacobs, & Kim, 2010). Trust in government has a long history of being linked to public policy support. If this linkage is to continue, the advances in trust in government literature must be wedded to policy research.

Race, Immigration, and Opinion

There are three major fields of research that examine the importance of race and immigration to public opinion. First, there is a growing body of literature that analyzes the "race gap," and how race impacts perceptions of various political phenomena. Most of this research focuses on the differences between African Americans and whites. A second area of research on race politics continues to debate the role of symbolic racism, principled conservatism, and group conflict. A third line of research examines immigration policies and opinions in reference to racial threat and contact theories.

Although the theoretical explanations may differ, researchers continue to document racial differences in opinion. African Americans and whites respond differently to argument frames about the death penalty (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). These authors show that blacks are more responsive to frames that are both racial and nonracial than are whites. Whites are resistant to persuasion, but when given a racial frame that reveals the death penalty discriminates against African Americans, whites become more supportive of the policy. The authors explain this reaction by discussing how blacks and whites differ in whether they attribute the causes of crime to dispositional or systemic forces. Other research analyzes racial differences in responses to explicitly racial, implicitly racial, and nonracial verbal cues and primes (White, 2007). Using social identity theory and priming a positive attachment to a super-ordinate identity reduces intergroup biases toward policies (Transue, 2007). Racial disparities in levels of information, and their implications for holding members of Congress accountable are illuminated (Griffin & Flavin, 2007). Issue frames and cues can activate race and gender group schemas that impact opinions on policies that are not at all group targeted (Winter, 2008). Research on African American opinions shows that episodic framing of HIV/AIDS activates negative attitudes toward behaviors associated with the disease and toward black men who engage in them, and generates support for mobilization and regressive policy solutions (Spence, 2010).

The debates between the theories of symbolic racism, principled ideology, and group conflict continue. Each theory is buttressed with substantial evidence. Neblo (2009a) argues that the debate continues due to mistakes in the measurement of public opinion about race. He asserts that conceptual problems impede theoretical progress. There is evidence for a more complex perception of the debate that uses a typology (Neblo, 2009b). In reference to the three major theses, he states "Each of the major parties to the debate is partially right in their account of public opinion about race politics, but about independently identifiable sub-sets of subjects" (2009b, p. 31). Other research on race politics examines the importance of elite rhetoric and stereotypes, and racial differences in perceptions of the rhetoric (Nelson, Sanbonmatsu, & McClerking, 2007).

In recent years, a profuse amount of research unites the literature on immigration with racial threat and contact theories. Anglo attitudes toward English-language and immigration policies relate to the size of the Latino population and are conditional on levels of segregation (Rocha & Espino, 2009). Hopkins (2010) finds support for a "politicized places" hypothesis where hostile political responses to neighboring immigrants are most likely when there is a sudden influx of immigrants paired with salient national rhetoric that bolsters a threat. The idea of economic self-interest as an explanation for immigration policy attitudes finds little empirical support (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2010). The authors also find that both rich and poor natives are equally opposed to low-skilled immigration. Other research illustrates the importance of elite discourse and group cues to trigger emotions (Brader, Valentino, & Suhay, 2008). Immigration attitudes of the Spanish-speaking population are shown to vary by news source (Abrajano & Singh, 2009). A core network theory that emphasizes the interpersonal environment, and has implications for both group threat and contact theories, is reinforced (Berg, 2009). The theoretical intrigue and policy salience ensures that the analysis of this literature will continue in the future.


V.O. Key (1961, p. 8) asserts that "To speak with precision of public opinion is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost." Despite the difficulty of the task, it is clear that opinion research has progressed. Public policy scholars should be aware of the multifarious advances made in the public opinion literature. It is an area of research that is making significant progress, but also continues to wrestle with classic puzzles. This essay illustrates the growing importance of competitive frames and selective exposure to media studies. I emphasize the significance of motivated reasoning, issue definition, and interpretation for information processing and opinion formation. I also present emerging literature on emotions and personality. Persistent disagreements concerning the linkage between policy and opinion, and the ability of individuals to hold meaningful opinions and ideologies are discussed. Advances in deliberative democracy, genetics, methods, and trust in government are also recognized. Finally, this examination of public opinion literature acknowledges recent innovations in research concerning classic theories in race politics and immigration studies.

As discussed throughout the essay, the advances described in each of these subsections have much to offer public policy researchers and practitioners. The progress in public opinion can be particularly applicable to studies of agenda-setting, policy formation, adoption, and feedback. The innovations in media studies demonstrate how the public receives information about policies, and how their support for policies can be molded and even polarized through presentation. Policy practitioners and researchers can use the framing and priming literature to understand how media can be wielded to appeal to certain individuals and mobilize support for policies. Research on selective exposure can be used to comprehend and target specific audiences and issue bases. The studies on opinion formation illustrate the mechanisms by which people interpret policy information and employ biases in their opinions of policies. More precisely, policy researchers can better comprehend who will learn from policy-related information, and who is more likely to filter information through motive-laden biases. The continuing debates on issue preferences and ideologies have implications for policy agenda-setting, elections, and voting behavior. Although polarization at the mass level is not unanimously agreed upon, it could be linked to elite polarization and policy gridlock. Additionally, researchers who concentrate on state-level policies and data should consider multi-level modeling instead of disaggregation of national surveys when samples are small. Lastly, scholars focusing on race and immigration should examine the burgeoning literature on public opinion in these policy areas. These potential policy applications are far from comprehensive. The diversity of policy studies and the host of breakthroughs in public opinion create unbounded opportunities for future study.

Due to the importance of public opinion to both normative and empirical research, grappling with old debates and testing innovative ideas is critical. If public opinion is to maintain an integral role in policy research, it is imperative that modern advances in opinion research are grasped and employed by policy scholars. This synthesis of the literature demonstrates that the relationship between policies and opinion bears many nuances and is quite complex. This essay provides a concise overview of recent advances in opinion studies that can serve as a starting point for future public opinion and policy research.

Kevin J. Mullinix is PhD student in Political Science at the University of Kansas.


  • Abrajano, Marisa, and Simran Singh. 2009. "Examining the Link Between Issue Attitudes and News Source: The Case of Latinos and Immigration Reform." Political Behavior 31 (1): 1–30.
  • Abramowitz, Alan I., and Kyle L. Saunders. 2008. "Is Polarization a Myth?" The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 542–55.
  • Alford, John R., and John R. Hibbing. 2004. "The Origin of Politics: An Evolutionary Theory of Political Behavior." Perspectives on Politics 2 (4): 707–23.
  • Ansolabehere, Stephen, Jonathan Rodden, and James M. Snyder Jr. 2008. "The Strength of Issues: Using Multiple Measures to Gauge Preference Stability, Ideological Constraint, and Issue Voting." The American Political Science Review 102 (2): 215–32.
  • Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Brian Schaffner. 2010. "Residential Mobility, Family Structure, and the Cell- Only Population." Public Opinion Quarterly 74 (2): 244–59.
  • Bafumi, Joseph, and Robert Y. Shapiro. 2009. "A New Partisan Voter." The Journal of Politics 71 (1): 1–24.
  • Barabas, Jason, and Jennifer Jerit. 2009. "Estimating the Causal Effects of Media Coverage on Policy-Specific Knowledge." American Journal of Political Science 53 (1): 73–89.
  • Bartels, Brandon L., and Diana Mutz. 2009. "Explaining Processes of Institutional Opinion Leadership." The Journal of Politics 71 (1): 249–61.
  • Berg, Justin A.. 2009. "Core Networks and Whites' Attitudes Toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy." Public Opinion Quarterly 73 (1): 7–31.
  • Blumberg, Stephen J., and Julian V. Luke. 2007. "Coverage Bias in Traditional Telephone Surveys of Low-Income and Young Adults." Public Opinion Quarterly 71 (5): 734–49.
  • Brace, Paul, and Brent D. Boyea. 2008. "State Public Opinion, the Death Penalty, and the Practice of Electing Judges." American Journal of Political Science 2 (2): 360–72.
  • Brader, Ted, Nicholas A. Valentino, and Elizabeth Suhay. 2008. "What Triggers Public Opposition to Immigration? Anxiety, Group Cues, and Immigration Threat." American Journal of Political Science 52 (4): 959–78.
  • Burdein, Inna, Milton Lodge, and Charles Taber. 2006. "Experiments on the Automacity of Political Beliefs and Attitudes." Political Psychology 27 (3): 359–71.
  • Campbell, Angus, Warren Miller, Philip Converse, and Donald Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: Wiley.
  • Carney, Dana R., John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gostling, and Jeff Potter. 2008. "The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind." Political Psychology 29 (6): 807–39.
  • Chong, Dennis, and James N. Druckman. 2007. "Framing Public Opinion in Competitve Democracies." The American Political Science Review 101 (4): 637–55.
  • Civettini, Andrew J., and David P. Redlawsk. 2009. "Voters, Emotions, and Memory." Political Psychology 30 (1): 125–51.
  • Claassen, Ryan L., and Benjamin Highton. 2009. "Policy Polarization among Party Elites and the Significance of Political Awareness in the Mass Public." Political Research Quarterly 62 (3): 538–51.
  • Claibourn, Michele P.. 2008. "Making A Connection: Repetition and Priming in Presidential Campaigns." The Journal of Politics 70 (4): 1142–59.
  • Clarke, Harold D., Allan Kornberg, and Thomas J. Scotto. 2009. Making Political Choices: Canada and the United States. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Clarke, Harold D., David Sanders, Marianne C. Stewart, and Paul F. Whiteley. 2004. Political Choice in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ———. 2009. Performance Politics and the British Voter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Converse, Philip E.. 1964. "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics." In Ideology and Discontent, ed. D. E. Apter. New York: Free Press, 206–61.
  • Cook, Fay Lomax, Lawrence R. Jacobs, and Dukhong Kim. 2010. "Trusting What You Know: Information, Knowledge, and Confidence in Social Security." The Journal of Politics 72 (2): 397–412.
  • Druckman, James N., Donald P. Green, James H. Kuklinski, and Arthur Lupia. 2006. "The Growth and Development of Experimental Research in Political Science." American Political Science Review 100 (4): 627–35.
  • Druckman, James N., and Rose McDermott. 2008. "Emotion and the Framing of Risky Choice." Political Behavior 30 (3): 297–321.
  • Druckman, James N., Cari Lynn Hennessy, Kristi St. Charles, and Jonathan Webber. 2010. "Competing Rhetoric Over Time: Frames Versus Cues." The Journal of Politics 72 (1): 136–48.
  • Dryzek, John S., and Simon Niemeyer. 2008. "Discursive Representation." The American Political Science Review 102 (4): 481–93.
  • Ehlen, John, and Patrick Ehlen. 2007. "Cellular-Only Substitution in the United States as Lifestyle Adop- tion." Public Opinion Quarterly 71 (5): 717–33.
  • Farrar, Cynthia, Donald P. Green, Jennifer E. Green, David W. Nickerson, and Steven Shewfelt. 2009. "Does Discussion Group Composition Affect Policy Preferences? Results from Three Randomized Experiments." Political Psychology 30 (4): 615–47.
  • Fein, Steven, George R. Goethals, and Matthew B. Kugler. 2007. "Social Influence on Political Judgments: The Case of Presidential Debates." Political Psychology 28 (2): 165–92.
  • Fiorina, Morris P., Samuel A. Abrams, and Jeremy C. Pope. 2008. "Polarization in the American Public: Misconceptions and Misreadings." The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 556–60.
  • Fridkin, Kim L., Patrick J. Kenney, Sarah Allen Gershon, Karen Shafer, and Gina Serignese Woodall. 2007. "Capturing the Power of a Campaign Event: The 2004 Presidential Debate in Tempe." The Journal of Politics 69 (3): 770–85.
  • Gaines, Brian J., James H. Kuklinski, Paul J. Quirk, Buddy Peyton, and Jay Verkuilen. 2007. "Same Facts, Different Interpretations: Partisan Motivation and Opinion on Iraq." The Journal of Politics 69 (4): 957–74.
  • Gerber, Alan S., Gregory A. Huber, David Doherty, Conor M. Dowling, and Shang E. Ha. 2010. "Person- ality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts." The American Political Science Review 104 (1): 111–33.
  • Gibson, James L., and Gregory A. Caldeira. 2009. "Knowing the Supreme Court? A Reconsideration of Public Ignorance of the High Court." The Journal of Politics 71 (2): 429–41.
  • Giles, Michael W., Bethany Blackstone, and Richard L. Vining Jr. 2008. "The Supreme Court in American Democracy: Unraveling the Linkages between Public Opinion and Judicial Decision Making." The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 293–306.
  • Griffin, John D., and Patrick Flavin. 2007. "Racial Differences in Information, Expectations, and Account- ability." The Journal of Politics 69 (1): 220–36.
  • Gross, Kimberly. 2008. "Framing Persuasive Appeals: Episodic and Thematic Framing, Emotional Response, and Policy Opinion." Political Psychology 29 (2): 169–92.
  • Hainmueller, Jens, and Michael J. Hiscox. 2010. "Attitudes Towad Highly Skilled and Low-Skilled Immi- gration: Evidence from a Survey Experiment." The American Political Science Review 104 (1): 61–84.
  • Hartman, Todd K., and Christopher R. Weber. 2009. "Who Said What? The Effects of Source Cues in Issue Frames." Political Behavior 31 (4): 537–58.
  • Hatemi, Peter K., Carolyn L. Funk, Sarah E. Medland, Hermine M. Maes, Judy L. Silberg, Nicholas G. Martin, and Lindon J. Eaves. 2009a. "Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Attitudes Over a Life Time." The Journal of Politics 71 (3): 1141–56.
  • Hatemi, Peter K., Sarah E. Medland, and Lindon J. Eaves. 2009b. "Do Genes Contribute to the 'Gender Gap'?" The Journal of Politics 71 (1): 262–76.
  • Hetherington, Marc J., and Thomas J. Rudolph. 2008. "Priming, Performance, and the Dynamics of Political Trust." The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 498–512.
  • Hetherington, Marc J., and Jonathan D. Weiler. 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hopkins, Daniel J. 2010. "Politicized Places: Explaining Where and When Immigrants Provoke Local Opposition." The American Political Science Review 104 (1): 40–60.
  • Huckfeldt, Robert. 2007. "Unanimity, Discord, and the Communication of Public Opinion." American Journal of Political Science 51: 978–95.
  • Huckfeldt, Robert, and Jeanette Morehouse Mendez. 2008. "Moths, Flames, and Political Engagement: Managing Disagreement within Communication Networks." The Journal of Politics 70 (1): 83–96.
  • Iyengar, Shanto, Kyu S. Hahn, Jon A. Krosnick, and John Walker. 2008. "Selective Exposure to Campaign Communication: The Role of Anticipated Agreement and Issue Public Membership." The Journal of Politics 70 (1): 186–200.
  • Jacobs, Lawrence R., Fay Lomax Cook, and Michael X. Delli Carpini. 2009. Talking Together: Public Deliberation and Political Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Jennings, M. Kent, Laura Stoker, and Jake Bowers. 2009. "Politics across Generations: Family Transmission Reexamined." The Journal of Politics 71 (3): 782–99.
  • Jerit, Jennifer. 2009. "How Predictive Appeals Affect Policy Opinions." American Journal of Political Science 53 (2): 411–26.
  • Jerit, Jennifer, Jason Barabas, and Toby Bolsen. 2006. "Citizens, Knowledge, and the Information Envi- ronment." American Journal of Political Science 50 (2): 266–82.
  • Jessee, Stephen A. 2009. "Spatial Voting in the 2004 Presidential Election." The American Political Science Review 103 (1): 59–81.
  • Jones, Bryan D., Heather Larsen-Price, and John Wilkerson. 2009. "Representation and American Govern- ing Institutions." The Journal of Politics 71 (1): 277–90.
  • Kam, Cindy D. 2007a. "Implicit Attitudes: Explicit Choices: When Subliminal Priming Predicts Candidate Preference." Political Behavior 29 (3): 343–67.
  • Kam, Cindy D., Jennifer R. Wilking, and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2007b. "Beyond the 'Narrow Data Base': Another Convenience Sample for Experimental Research." Political Behavior 29 (4): 415–40.
  • Keele, Luke. 2007. "Social Capital and the Dynamics of Trust in Government." American Journal of Political Science 51 (2): 241–54.
  • Key, V. O. 1961. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.
  • Kim, Sung-youn., Charles S. Taber, and Milton Lodge. 2010. "A Computational Model of the Citizen as Motivated Reasoner: Modeling the Dynamics of the 2000 Presidential Election." Political Behavior 32 (1): 1–28.
  • Lax, Jeffrey R., and Justin H. Phillips. 2009a. "Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness." The American Political Science Review 103 (3): 367–86.
  • ———. 2009b. "How Should We Estimate Public Opinion in The States?" American Journal of Political Science 53 (1): 107–21.
  • Lebo, Matthew J., and Daniel Cassino. 2007. "The Aggregated Consequences of Motivated Reasoning and the Dynamics of Partisan Presidential Approval." Political Psychology 28 (6): 719–46.
  • Lenz, Gabriel S.. 2009. "Learning and Opinion Change, Not Priming: Reconsidering the Priming Hypoth- esis." American Journal of Political Science 53 (4): 821–37.
  • Levendusky, Matthew S.. 2010. "Clearer Cues, More Consistent Voters: A Benefit of Elite Polarization." Political Behavior 32 (1): 111–31.
  • Lippmann, Walter. 1922. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
  • Lodge, Milton, and Charles Taber. 2005. "The Automacity of Affect for Political Leaders, Groups, and Issues: An Experimental Test of the Hot Cognition Hypothesis." Political Psychology 26 (3): 455–82.
  • MacKuen, Michael, Jennifer Wolak, Luke Keele, and George E. Marcus. 2010. "Civic Engagements: Resolute Partisanship Or Reflective Deliberation." American Journal of Political Science 54 (2): 440–58.
  • Malhotra, Neil, and Jon A. Krosnick. 2007. "Retrospective and Prospective Performance Assessments during the 2004 Election Campaign: Tests of Mediation and News Media Priming." Political Behavior 29 (2): 249–78.
  • Miller, Melissa K., and Shannon K. Orr. 2008. "Experimenting with A 'Third Way' in Political Knowledge Estimation." Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (4): 768–80.
  • Miller, Warren E., and J. Merrill Shanks. 1996. The New American Voter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Mondak, Jeffery J., Matthew V. Hibbing, Damarys Canache, Mitchell A. Seligson, and Mary R. Anderson. 2010. "Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior." The American Political Science Review 104 (1): 85–110.
  • Mutz, Diana C.. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Neblo, Michael A. 2009a. "Meaning and Measurement: Reorienting the Race Politics Debate." Political Research Quarterly 62 (3): 474–84.
  • ———. 2009b. "Three-Fifths a Racist: A Typology for Analyzing Public Opinion About Race." Political Behavior 31 (1): 31–51.
  • Nelson, Thomas E., Kira Sanbonmatsu, and Harwood K. McClerking. 2007. "Playing a Different Race Card: Examining the Limits of Elite Influence on Perceptions of Racism." The Journal of Politics 69 (2): 416–29.
  • Nicholson-Crotty, Sean, David A. M. Peterson, and Mark D. Ramirez. 2009. "Dynamic Representation(S): Federal Criminal Justice Policy and An Alternative Dimension of Public Mood." Political Behavior 31 (4): 629–55.
  • Nie, Norman H., Darwin W. Miller III, Saar Golde, Daniel M. Butler, and Kenneth Winneg. 2010. "The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market." American Journal of Political Science 54 (2): 428–39.
  • Page, Benjamin I., and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1982. "Changes in Amiercans' Policy Preferences, 1935–1979." Public Opinion Quarterly 46 (Spring): 24–42.
  • Parker, Suzanne L., Glenn R. Parker, and James A. McCann. 2008. "Opinion Taking within Friendship Networks." American Journal of Political Science 52 (2): 412–20.
  • Parkin, Michael. 2010. "Taking Late Night Comedy Seriously." Political Research Quarterly 63 (1): 3–15.
  • Parsons, Bryan M. 2010. "Social Networks and the Affective Impact of Political Disagreement." Political Behavior 32 (2): 181–204.
  • Peffley, Mark, and Jon Hurwitz. 2007. "Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America." American Journal of Political Science 51 (4): 996–1012.
  • Percival, Garrick L., Martin Johnson, and Max Neiman. 2009. "Representation and Local Policy: Relating County-Level Public Opinion to Policy Outputs." Political Research Quarterly 62 (1): 164–77.
  • Petersen, Michael B. 2010. "Distinct Emotions, Distinct Domains: Anger, Anxiety and Perceptions of Intentionality." The Journal of Politics 72 (2): 357–65.
  • Prior, Markus, and Arthur Lupia. 2008. "Money, Time, and Political Knowledge: Distinguishing Quick Recall and Political Learning Skills." American Journal of Political Science 52 (1): 169–83.
  • Rocha, Rene R., and Rodolfo Espino. 2009. "Racial Threat, Residential Segregation, and the Policy Atti- tudes of Anglos." Political Research Quarterly 62 (2): 415–26.
  • Slothuus, Rune. 2008. "More Than Weighting Cognitive Importance: A Dual-Process Model of Issue Framing Effects." Political Psychology 29 (1): 1–28.
  • Small, Deborah A., and Jennifer S. Lerner. 2008. "Emotional Policy: Personal Sadness and Anger Shape Judgments about A Welfare Case." Political Psychology 29 (2): 149–68.
  • Soss, Joe, and Sanford F. Schram. 2007. "A Public Transformed? Welfare Reform as Policy Feedback." The American Political Science Review 101 (1): 111–27.
  • Spence, Lester K. 2010. "Episodic Frames, HIV/AIDS, and African American Public Opinion." Political Research Quarterly 63 (2): 257–68.
  • Stasavage, David. 2007. "Polarization and Publicity: Rethinking the Benefits of Deliberative Democracy." The Journal of Politics 69 (1): 59–72.
  • Stroud, Natalie J. 2008. "Media Use and Political Predispositions: Revisiting the Concept of Selective Exposure." Political Behavior 30 (3): 341–66.
  • Sturgis, Patrick, Nick Allum, and Patten Smith. 2008. "An Experiment on the Measurement of Political Knowledge in Surveys." Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (1): 90–102.
  • Sturgis, Patrick, Sanna Read, Peter K. Hatemi, Gu Zhu, Tim Trull, Margaret J. Wright, and Nicholas G. Martin. 2010. "A Genetic Basis for Social Trust?" Political Behavior 32 (2): 205–30.
  • Taber, Charles S., and Milton Lodge. 2006. "Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs." American Journal of Political Science 50 (3): 755–69.
  • Taber, Charles S., Damon Cann, and Simona Kucsova. 2009. "The Motivated Processing of Political Arguments." Political Behavior 31 (2): 137–55.
  • Transue, John E. 2007. "Identity Salience, Identity Acceptance, and Racial Policy Attitudes: American National Identity As A Uniting Force." American Journal of Political Science 51 (1): 78–91.
  • Treier, Shawn, and D. Sunshine Hillygus. 2009. "The Nature of Political Ideology in the Contemporary Electorate." Public Opinion Quarterly 73 (4): 679–703.
  • Ulbig, Stacy G. 2008. "Voice Is Not Enough: The Importance of Influence in Political Trust and Policy Assessments." Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (3): 523–39.
  • Valentino, Nicholas A., Vincent L. Hutchings, Antoine J. Banks, and Anne K. Davis. 2008. "Is a Worried Citizen a Good Citizen? Emotions, Political Information Seeking, and Learning Via the Internet." Political Psychology 29 (2): 247–73.
  • Valentino, Nicholas A., Antoine J. Banks, Vincent L. Hutchings, and Anne K. Davis. 2009. "Selective Exposure in the Internet Age: The Interaction between Anxiety and Information Utility." Political Psychology 30 (4): 591–613.
  • Weinberger, Joel, and Drew Westen. 2008. "RATS, We Should Have Used Clinton: Subliminal Priming in Political Campaigns." Political Psychology 29 (5): 631–51.
  • White, Ismail K. 2007. "When Race Matters and When It Doesn't: Racial Group Differences in Response to Racial Cues." The American Political Science Review 101 (2): 339–54.
  • Winter, Nicholas J. G. 2008. Dangerous Frames: How Ideas about Race and Gender Shape Public Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago.
  • Wojcieszak, Magdalena, and Vincent Price. 2010. "Bridging the Divide or Intensifying the Conflict? How Disagreement Affects Strong Predilections about Sexual Minorities." Political Psychology 31 (3): 315–39.
  • Wood, B. Dan, and Arnold Vedlitz. 2007. "Issue Definition, Information Processing, and the Politics of Global Warming." American Journal of Political Science 51 (3): 552–68.
  • Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Zink, James R., James F. Spriggs, II, and John T. Scott. 2009. "Courting the Public: The Influence of Decision Attributes on Individuals' Views of Court Opinions." The Journal of Politics 71 (3): 909–25.