PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans remain convinced that the nation would be better off if leaders followed the public's views more closely, reflecting a sentiment that has been evident in Gallup polling for more than 35 years.
Seventy-seven percent of Americans in Gallup's Sept. 8-11 survey say the nation would be better off if leaders followed public opinion more closely, about the same as in 2005 and 2001, and higher than the 67% who felt that way in 1975, when Gallup first asked the question. One in five Americans say the nation would be worse off if leaders paid more attention to the public's views.
Views on this issue differ only minimally by partisanship. Democrats are slightly less likely than Republicans to say the nation would be better off if leaders listened more to the people, but the differences are not large.
Education makes more of an impact, with those who have pursued postgraduate studies somewhat less likely to say the nation would be better off than those who are less well educated.
Leaders Should Also Pay Attention to Public Opinion Polls
In a country with more than 300 million residents, the most efficient and practical way for leaders to assess the public's views is through polls. A second question included in the survey asked Americans about leaders' taking into account the views of "public opinion polls." Slightly fewer Americans -- but still a clear majority -- say the nation would be better off if leaders paid closer attention to polls than say the same about public opinion generally. These attitudes have changed somewhat over the four times Gallup has asked the question since 1996, but in all instances a substantial majority has said the nation would be better off.
These attitudes about public opinion polls were collected as part of a public opinion poll. It is possible that people who are in the middle of taking a survey would feel obligated to say that the results of a polling process similar to the one in which they were engaged would be potentially important. It is also possible that those who agree to participate in public opinion polls would be more likely to say the nation would be better off if leaders followed polling results more closely. Still, these results are robust enough to suggest that they represent clear majority sentiment in the U.S., even if the measuring methodology affects them somewhat.
As was the case for attitudes about public opinion generally, there are only minor differences in views on this question across political groups. Again, those with postgraduate education appear to be the most skeptical about the value of leaders paying attention to public opinion polls, but a majority of even this group says the nation would be better off if leaders did so.
The Founding Fathers of this country hotly debated the appropriate relationship between the public and its representatives in a democracy, and these debates have continued ever since. One view has it that elected representatives are designed to be trustees of the public's will, to do what they think best in the public's behalf, with the people weighing in on Election Day. Another view has it that elected representatives should be delegates of the people, and should do their best while in office to ascertain the public's will at all times and attempt to translate that into policy and actions. The public itself -- the ultimate power in a democracy regardless of exactly how representatives do their job -- appears to favor the latter perspective: substantial majorities say the nation would be better off if leaders closely followed public opinion and public opinion polls.
Separate Gallup data to be reported next week also show that Americans have more confidence in "the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country" than they do in the "men and women in political life in this country" or the legislative or executive branch of the U.S. government.
At this juncture, Americans are highly negative about Congress, with record- or near-record-low readings on approval of Congress, confidence in Congress as an institution, the perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress, and confidence in the legislative branch of government. This lack of faith could explain why average Americans would say leaders should gain direction by paying more attention to the people (rather than, for example, lobbyists), but in reality, this great faith in the views of the people has been evident for decades.
It appears, then, that Americans want their leaders to pay more attention to their constituents, and to the polls that measure what those constituents are thinking and feeling about major policy issues of the day.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 8-11, 2011, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.