The role of public opinion polls in electoral democracy is undeniable because, for good or for bad, they affect, in part, the kinds of laws and policies elected officials enact. But the voices measured in polls are not perfectly representative of their populations of interest. More precisely, polls generally sing with a more “knowledgeable” accent than those they represent because of the greater tendency of the less knowledgeable to remain silent. This distortion, however, can be palliated by providing conditions more propitious to attitude development. By relying on survey-experiments conducted in Brazil and in the U.S., I present evidence that inducing people to think more carefully before answering attitude questions reduces substantially the likelihood of the less knowledgeable, which compose most of the Brazilian and American populations, to express a nonopinion response. Thus providing people with greater opportunity to think about politics—something most of them do not do very frequently—makes for more representative measures of public opinion. But the analyses also suggest that increased thought induces greater uncertainty or ambivalence among the most knowledgeable. As a whole, this paper improves our understanding on how people come to develop political attitudes and on the conditions that lead to greater attitude uncertainty or ambivalence. It also carries important lessons and implications for survey design more generally.
Political Behavior – Springer Journals
Published: Dec 9, 2008
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