Origins and Birth
Barbara Ning Balint
Edited by Shanti Lara Giovannetti-Singh
Can you change the opinion of the masses in one night?
In democratic governments, public opinion is a driving force in the creation of policy. Far from a hollow voice, the views, ideas and concerns of a nation are reflected in the political climate – be it directly, through overt demands made to politicians, or more subtly, for example through elections. But is the process really this straightforward? What are the driving forces behind the public opinion? Unfortunately, the whole procedure is more complicated than a linear causation, and there are many factors that should be taken into consideration when analyzing public policy making.
During elections, the act of casting a ballot allows you to choose from a myriad of policy visions, and thus, multiple future scenarios. After the election period, winning parties may turn their words into actions according to their political programmes. The second way of political representation occurs directly with politicians responding to the public’s demands, for example through referendums. Unlike indirect elections, during referendums people don’t have to make vague choices about their country's future, but are offered specific, and binary, scenarios from which to choose. A factor, however, which has been overlooked far too often, is who exactly we mean when we say ‘the public’. Is this hazy definition an aggregation of all the people with equal representation? Or is it a narrower collection of the population? Who are the voices being heard and who are those who have been silenced or overlooked?
According to the political scientist Tom W. Smith (1990), the first opinion poll dates back to 1824. Conducted in North Carolina and Delaware, it aimed to predict the election result and to develop a better nomination process. The opinion poll was published in the local newspaper, The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian, and asked the following question: ‘who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming elections?’. The results showed that 70% of the respondents planned to cast their vote for Andrew Jackson. While the estimation did provide a more or less correct picture—Jackson did indeed win the election—the margin was much slimmer than the opinion polls indicated. He won against John Quincy Adams with only a narrow popular vote victory (Andrew Jackson- 99, John Quincy Adams- 84, William Harris Crawford- 41), yet the House of Representatives had selected Adams as elected president.
It should be noted that in the early 19th Century, the electoral body was extremely restricted, with only white men who owned property holding the right to vote. As a result, a disparity between the opinion held by the wider public, and that of the electorate, were not too surprising. Despite its long history, the practice of assessing public opinion has by no means been inclusive or an accurate indication of the views of an entire population. Over the past two centuries, the world has changed significantly and Western democracies have finally achieved universal suffrage prohibiting gender, racial and socio-economic discrimination. Despite this, issues surrounding representation within the electoral body still remain—does public opinion really reflect the perspective of all of us? Or is the situation uneasily similar to 1824?
These questions may be tackled by exploring the reasons of voter abstinence. How can someone be heard if they do not speak? How can a citizen be represented if they don’t exercise their right to vote? According to John D. Griffin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, and Newman, Professor of Social Sciences at Pepperdine University (2005), politicians tend to pay more attention to the opinions of voters, rather than to those who have refused to vote. This phenomenon is due to several factors. Firstly, and importantly, the clear aggregate dataset allows the opinions of voters to be easily analysed in a transparent and comprehensible manner. Secondly, non-voters can be hard to identify, and the validity of their thoughts, for example if they are underage, or not citizens of the country, may be placed under scrutiny. Finally, within our current political system, it is voters, not those who abstain, who determine which politicians secure their seats, and thus, strategically are a good demographic to target. Though politicians pay more attention to voters than non-voters, it does not mean that the opinion of the silent group should be ignored.
Moreover, in the study of public opinion, political scientists Stuart N. Soroka & Christopher Wleizen (2010) have revealed a significant thought: public responsiveness, like policy representation, varies across policy domains and political institutions. Whilst there is, undoubtedly, a distinction between voters and non-voters, these categories are much less static than initially thought. Certain issues such as abortion, euthanasia or the legalisation of drugs, attract many people to the ballots, the emotional gravitas of these debates compelling people to vote. These issues affect people in far-reaching ways, and the consequence of the turnout may be perceptible within years, months or even days. On the other hand, some more pedestrian concerns, such as the introduction of speed bumps or changing rates of canton tax rarely drive people to cast their vote. For the majority of people, such administrative matters on quotas or rates may seem boring, and irrelevant in their lives or they don’t see the effects in their prospective future. Whilst the boundaries between those who vote and those who abstain are in constant flux, there is one factor which remains unchanged. At the end of the day, the voice that counts is that of the voters—their declared preferences driving the actions of policymakers. In this sense, only the opinion of those who vote reflect the nebulous haze defined as ‘public opinion’.
Yet, the goal of this article is neither to propose new methods to increase representation, nor is it to assess the motivation of the non-voters’ lack of awareness. Instead, I seek to provide an understanding of the connection between the public opinion (the opinion of the voters) and public policy outcomes. This connection starks when considering the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. The 1995 referendum, was held 15 years after the first referendum on whether to give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate a sovereignty-association agreement between Quebec and Canada. The second referendum held in 1995, was also centred around the question of sovereignty, but this time it posed the question on whether Quebec should proclaim national sovereignty and seek for independence? I chose the Quebec referendum example, as it is not only an issue that may have changed history, but the result of the referendum had influence on every citizen's life in Quebec, even on their identity as well.
Lawrence LeDuc, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, points out that beside ideologies and partisan preferences, voting choice may depend on other short- term political factors that exceed the issue presented on the referendum ballot. Public opinion may be easily shaped within a short period of time, especially amongst hesitating voters and the lay population. These wavering voters may only possess a superficial understanding of an issue, rather than a profound or personal connection to it. Therefore, the political campaign that precedes the referendum may be directed mainly towards the ‘undecided’ voters’ (LeDuc, 2002). Politicians are concerned to secure the majority of votes, thus they need to attract votes of people other than partisan voters. Parti québécois Government knew that the support of sovereignist voters was stable, but their success also depended on the votes of ‘soft nationalists’.
In the early periods of the campaign season, the Quebec Liberal leader, Daniel Johnson led the polls with “No”. Shortly after the campaign season had begun, however,, Jacques Parizeau’s “Yes” committee took the lead. On the 7th of October, just fivedays after the official start of the campaign season, Parizeau made a significant strategic decision, and appointed Lucien Bouchard, the popular leader of The Bloc Québécois as the Chief Negotiator of the “Yes” campaign. Both Bouchard’s popularity and charismatic personality seduced many undecided voters to his campaign, transforming their hestiant “No’s” into resounding “Yes’s”. For the final three weeks of the referendum campaign, the “yes” vote clearly led the opinion polls.
However, just one week before the referendum, something unforeseen happened. The “No” side organized a rally at the Verdun Auditorium, where Chrétien completely changed his narrative, emphasizing Quebec's sentimental attachment to Canada, as well as promising future reforms securing Quebec’s power. On 27th October 1995, just two days after the rally in Verdun Auditorium, tens of thousands of federalists and supporters of the “No” committee poured into Place du Canada in Montreal to express both their love of Quebec and their faith in a better, united Canada. After a somewhat controversial campaign filled with emotions, Johnson’s “No” side has won the referendum by a narrow majority of 50.58%. Although the referendum campaign season was only a month-long, the several shifts of the public opinion is outstanding, and clearly demonstrates how the view of the public can be formed within days if sympathy questions, and emotions are involved.
If we look at contemporary examples, and take the role of media into consideration, the manipulation of public opinion appears to be more evident. In 2014, a not-so-flattering picture of Ed Miliband, the former leader of the Labour party was published in the Evening Standard. A photograph of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich flooded the internet as a meme and has greatly influenced the public perception of the politician. The purpose of the awkward, embarrassing image was to create an impression of Miliband being an incompetent, deficient leader, incapable of performing even the simplest task, such as eating a bacon sandwich. Similarly to the Quebec referendum, before the photograph had come to light, Miliband was backed by a stable support, but so called ‘bacon-gate’ completely altered the opinion trends. Despite the fact that the picture was taken in 2014, it was a sustained topic, and in 2015, a day before the general election, the picture of Miliband was published in the UK's most widely read newspaper, The Sun. This last minute emotional manipulation recalls that which occurred during the 1995 Quebec referendum, whilst ‘bacon-gate’ was by no means the sole factor in Miliband's loss, it nevertheless contributed to David Cameron’s election. As undecided voters tend to disregard the political events in general, such last minute campaign moves with digestible content attached with emotions may easily form the voters opinion.
The question of how voter abstinence can be reduced is still open. However, the two examples have demonstrated how public opinion can be shaped, and how the trends can be changed overnight. These representative cases may be warning signs for the public, as the Quebec referendum and Miliband's picture have clearly shown the vulnerability of non-voters and highlighted the essential role emotions may play in political decision making. Isn’t it odd that political judgments are made based on the person’s style of eating? How would we feel if our job interviewer would reject us thinking we are unsuitable for the position only because of the way we open a banana? Elections and referendums should not be primarily based on emotions or sympathy. Although nearly every political campaign is utilizing the tool of emotional manipulation, people should not fall for the trap. Suffrage is not only a duty of every citizen that has fulfilled, but it should be realized it is more than that. It is a privilege. People who have the opportunity to vote should carefully and cautiously use their right, after deepening their
understanding on the issue and thorough consideration.
Griffin, J. D., and Newman, B. (2005). Are Voters Better Represented? Journal of Politics, 67, 1206–1227.
LeDuc, L. (2002). Opinion change and voting behaviour in referendums. European Journal of Political Research, 41, 711–732
Smith, T.W. (1990). The First Straw?: A Study of the Origins of Election Polls. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 54(1), 21–36.
Wleizen, C. and Soroka, S.N. (2016). Public Opinion and Public Policy. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Available at: https://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-
9780190228637-e-74 [Accessed 3 Jan. 2022]