How do we measure public opinion? How do agents of socialization help to shape our beliefs? How can we explain the voting patterns of certain groups in the 2012 presidential election and 2010...

How do we measure public opinion? How do agents of socialization help to shape our beliefs? How can we explain the voting patterns of certain groups in the 2012 presidential election and 2010 Congressional elections?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Before the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney told his supporters that 47% of the population would not vote for him, he based this statement on factors that have historically accounted for Democratic votes. For, traditionally, those who are members of labor unions, those who work for lower or minimum wages, those who are state or federal workers, and those who are on public support do vote for the Democratic candidate because Democrats traditionally support social programs and promote government programs. In short, many voters consider the future of their source of income (jobs or government support) when they vote. Thus, Mr. Romney measured public opinion on the statistics of other elections and the patterns indicated in polls and surveys.

Among the "agents of socialization" who shape beliefs are families and friends, universities, and the media. In the 1960s, for instance, when the Baby Boomers headed to college, they were greatly influenced by the thinking of many of their professors and by a new culture of "free love" and drugs. Throughout the United States there were many professors who were critical of capitalism (big business has traditionally supported the Republican party) and, of course, the Vietnam War. While McCarthyism had its effect upon colleges, such as the University of California/Berkeley where protests broke out because the university refused to allow any Communists to speak publicly, there was a new organization, the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, which was touted as the "New Left," and with anti-war demonstrations and other social protests, it and other campus movements profoundly affected many young people's attitudes as they broke from their parents' conservative values. Then, when the Civil Rights Movement began, there was another shift to more liberal thinking as people became aware of social injustices about which they had not been untouched or aware. To date, surveys indicate that the faculties of colleges and universities are predominately liberal. Neil Gross, a sociology professor and a self-described liberal, provides results from surveys that reveal the liberal bias on campuses in his new book, Why Professors are Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?

In addition, media coverage or non-coverage of issues and events plays a powerful role in shaping the attitudes of people. One need only recall the profound effect that control of the media and propaganda had on Germany before and during World War II. Even in the United States today, the wording of some news stories is carefully chosen, what is shown or told, what is considered the top story is carefully decided upon by news directors. Also, newspapers and news magazines have a liberal or conservative "slant" to them.

One example of selective coverage is the reporting on the first Ft. Hood shootings in 2009. At first, the major networks, CNN,NBC, and CBS, had only a cursory reporting on this incident. But, after another network gave a much more thorough report and viewers began turning to it, the major networks, whose ratings on this story plummeted, then went ahead and provided more coverage of the incident, coverage which matched that of their rival station.

That some media are politically controlled was evidenced during the campaign for president in 2008 as Time magazine printed the face of the Democratic candidate 14 times and his face or name was on 25 of the 52 issues (Incidentally, the Vice-Presidential candidate was never on the cover of Time). The Republican candidate's face appeared on Time's cover only 4 times and twice he shared it with the Democratic candidate. By the same token, the National Review and other decidedly conservative publications posted other faces on their covers and few of the Democratic candidate.

Social media and television shows such as The Colbert Report or the John Stewart Show are by young people's own admission where they get their news. Church is also an influential place for moral views that affect one's political choice. Concern for the well-being of others has statistically been a huge factor in voting, and religious beliefs play a part in this, as well. 

As a rule, congressional elections do not interest as many people as do presidential elections, so voting results do not always "match up." Sometimes, too, voters are disgruntled with the incumbent party and vote for the opposing party when the congressional election comes around. Also, since many people feel that their congressional candidate will not have much of an affect upon decision and law-making, they stay home at election time.

On the questionable assumption that people act completely rationally, there is a formula for determining if someone will vote. Here is the formula: 

   [ greater than symbol means that PB + D must outweigh C]

P stands for "probability" that the person's vote will affect election outcome
B stands for the perceived "benefit" if a person's party will win
D originally stood for "democracy," but now represents any gratification or personal profit to themselves people gain if their party wins (e.g. labor unions get support from the government)
C stands for the financial cost, time, and effort that voting takes

This formula does, then, offer an explanation why people would neglect certain elections: They feel that these elections are not worth their time as there is little that they will personally gain from them, especially if they live in a state that is not heavily populated and has a small number of representatives in Congress.