The Measurement of Public Opinion

Joseph M. Bobbitt
University of Southern California

THE PRESENT test has at least two unique features.[1] In the first place, it attempts to render a measure of public opinion on ten issues in terms of specific alternate solutions. Many public opinion tests attempt to measure public opinion on a statistical scale. That is, public opinion is measured in terms of some abstract quality such as conservatism or liberalism. While there is much to be said in favor of this type of public opinion measure, the present method has, aside from its uniqueness, another advantage. This advantage lies in the fact that, of the vast number of possible solutions to any public issue, only three or four have any chance of finally being adopted. These favored solutions are usually, of course, those backed by political parties and by powerful interests of various kinds. Very often the plan that is finally adopted depends not so much upon the merit of the solution as it does upon the political fortunes of its backers. Furthermore, the publicity and propaganda campaigns launched in favor of these group-supported proposals lull the average citizen into the tacit assumption that there are really only three or four plans that are at all feasible. Lack of information and mental inertia combine with the publicity campaigns to make the citizen's reaction to a public issue one involving a choice decision, not one involving a reasoned solution to the problem. For immediate and practical purposes, then, it is unimportant that a small portion of the population is not satisfied with any of the much publicized solutions to the

( 56) various public issues. It is quite safe to predict that one of the group-supported solutions will ultimately be adopted.

The structure of the present test recognizes the points just made concerning public opinion. A brief statement of ten public issues is followed in each case by a concise wording of three of the most highly publicized solutions to the issue. The subjects are instructed to check for each issue the solution they favor. The greatest difficulty in building the test is that of choosing for each issue what may really be considered the best supported solutions.

The second feature of the present test is the provision made for the subjects' indicating whether or not they consider each of the issues presented relatively important or relatively unimportant. This measure not only indicates the percentage of people who consider any one issue important or not, but it also gives a crude measure of the relative importance of the various issues to the group test-ed. It is often as important to know what issues a group considers important as it is to know what the opinions of the group are.

Since the method involved in this study is more important than are the actual questions and results, the complete test is not reproduced here. It is assumed that each investigator will formulate the questions that he considers important. Reproduced below are the written instructions used in this investigation, four of the ten test items, and the names of the other test items. Each test item is accompanied by the results obtained from its use. There are results for two groups : graduate university students and undergraduate university students. The graduate group percentage is on the left in each case, and the undergraduate group percentage, on the right. The number of cases for the undergraduate group was 112; for the graduate group, 17.

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There is usually an almost innumerable number of possible solutions to any important public issue. A variety of factors as a rule combine, however, to make only three or four of these possible solutions appear practical or to have any chance of adoption. In practice, then, public opinion must lean toward one or another of this restricted list of alternatives.

Below are brief statements of several public issues. After each statement appear three of the best supported and most favorably considered solutions of the problem. You are asked to check for each of the problems presented the solution that you personally favor. You are also asked to check for each of the problems presented whether or not you consider it relatively important as an issue compared to public issues in general. Hence, it would be possible for a person to check all of the issues listed below as relatively important or as relatively unimportant. Here is a sample issue, showing the method of marking:

The growth of organized gangsters threatens the national life of the United States. We should:

1.  Declare war on gangsters with every weapon at the disposal of society. 

2.  Launch an educational campaign to discourage children from becoming recruits of the gangsters. 

3.  Depend upon the repeal of prohibition automatically to abolish gangsters. 

Relatively important Relatively unimportant.

1. One large manufacturer objected to accepting formally the NRA code for his industry. In your opinion, the federal government should have:

(58.8;29.5) 1. Invoked the licensing provision included in the NRA structure (literally forcing him to sign the code or quit business).

(17.6;18.7) 2. Attempted to create hostile public opinion toward the manufacturer and his product.

(23.5;51.8) 3. Made him comply with the provisions of his industry's NRA code, without signing the code. (41.2;75.0) Relatively important.

(58.8;25.0) Relatively unimportant.

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2. Recently there have been several outbreaks of mob violence. In order to discourage and to prevent similar outbreaks in the future, governing officials should:

(00.0;10.7) 1. Increase the legal penalties for crime.

(94.1;74.1) 2. Begin serious work on the task of reforming our court procedure in the interest of speed, efficiency, and justice.

(5.9;15.1) 3. Launch a vigorous educational campaign to in-

crease respect for law and order.

(94.1;92.8) Relatively important.

(5.9;7.1) Relatively unimportant.

3. Associations of farmers have recently attempted to combat falling prices for agricultural produce by a farm strike. To meet the problem of falling prices, farmers in this association should:

(6.7;9.8) 1. Refuse to sell any produce at prevailing prices and attempt to prevent other farmers from doing so.

(53.3;53.6) 2. Use political pressure to force the federal government to give assistance of the kind desired by the farmers.

(40.0;36.6) 3. Allow the sale at the prevailing prices of enough produce only to insure an adequate domestic food supply.

(93.3;94.6) Relatively important.

(6.7;5.4) Relatively unimportant.

4. The Copeland bill, that is, the new pure food and drug bill before Congress, offers consumers adequate protection against poisonous cosmetics, impure and dangerous drugs, and adulterated foods. Since food and drug regulations affect three industries, the smallest of which operates on a billion dollar a year basis, the federal government should:

(00.0;8'0) 1. Frame food and drug legislation in such a way as to hurt business as little as possible.

(5.9;12.5) 2. Prohibit the sale of definitely dangerous foods, drugs, and cosmetics, but allow the free sale of inferior but harmless foods and cosmetics.

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(94.1;79.5) 3. Frame food and drug legislation designed to give the consumer absolute protection against all harmful and worthless foods, drugs, and cosmetics, regardless of the effect on business.

(88.2;74.1) Relatively important.

(11.8;25.9) Relatively unimportant.

Other issues in this investigation were:

1. California state deficit issue.

2. Moral tone of motion pictures issue.

3. Immediate policy of officials in regard to mobs issue.

4. Method of liquor control issue.

5. News agencies vs. radios fight for news control issue.

6. Money policy of the United States issue.

The exemplary nature of the sample test items that have been included makes it possible to frame a discussion of the results obtained that is also true of the whole group of ten test items. First, the graduate and undergraduate groups do not differ from each other in any significant manner. In only one case (the NRA issue) does the preference of the groups vary. Second, the preferences ex-pressed are usually rather decisive. In no case did one or another of the solutions fail to poll a majority. In only one case (the farmer association issue) did the graduate students fail to express a preference amounting to at least 55 per cent. The undergraduates expressed preferences of less than 55 per cent in two cases (NRA code issue and farmer association issue). The graduate students reached a unanimity amounting to 94.1 per cent on two issues (prevention of mob violence and pure food and drug act). The undergraduates expressed one preference amounting to 80.4 per cent of the group (news agencies vs. radio station issue). The graduate students failed in five cases to give one of the three alternatives a single vote. The smallest vote recorded in any case by the undergraduates amounted to 8.0 per cent of the group. Third, most of the

( 59) issues were considered relatively important. The two most important issues for both groups were the prevention of mob violence and the money policy of the federal government. The moral tone of motion pictures and the question of news agencies as against radio stations were checked by both groups as relatively unimportant issues. The graduate group also considered the NRA code issue as relatively unimportant.

The foregoing discussion foreshadows the specific conclusions :

1. The two groups studied fail to show any striking differences.

2. Opinion tends to favor rather strongly one or an-other of the alternatives in each case.

3. The groups tend to consider the issues included in this test as relatively important issues.

A general conclusion is to the effect that the data lend some support to the contention that public opinion tends to be dictated in many instances by a dominant political group. Of course, the policy of the political group is also determined by what its leaders judge the preference of the majority to be. In conclusion, it may be said that this method presents a feasible way of measuring public opinion but that the wise construction of the test is difficult and ideally should involve a collaboration of experts.


  1. This test was developed by the writer as a member of the Seminar in Public Opinion (Emory S. Bogardus, instructor), University of Southern California, first semester, 1933-1934.

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