Sometimes it's easy to conclude that politicians just follow the polls. When public opinion shifts, the politicians-their hearts and their votes-seem to shift right along with it. At least that's what today's fashionable cynicism tells us. But is it so? Cynics point to the fortunes of various gun control bills. Held up for years, new gun control legislation started to move on Capitol Hill in the wake of the horrifying school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, followed by another incident in Conyers, Georgia.
The question is, did public opinion substantially shift after the high school tragedies, thereby giving impetus to the politicians' actions? A historical look at gun control attitudes, coupled with the recalcitrance of politicians to enact gun control legislation, would seem to suggest that the answer is no.
Americans express reasonably strong support for gun control laws and they have pretty much done so for a decade. Support for even the strictest measures has stayed consistent as well-although at lower levels.
A Gallup Poll found two-thirds of the public (66 percent) calling for stricter gun control laws in late April this year, with 25 percent saying no change is needed. That's not a lot different from the 68 percent-25 percent split from a Gallup Poll in 1991.
ABC News and the Washington Post have posed a series of questions on various types of gun control. Take, for example, proposals to ban assault weapons: This May, the pollsters found 79 percent in favor of such a ban and 19 percent opposed. And that was not much different from the same question posed by the same pollsters five years ago.
Or check out a Pew Research Center poll that asked about a stringent measure: "Would you favor or oppose a law that banned the sale of handguns?" This May, 44 percent were in favor, while 50 percent were opposed. In December 1993, thenumbers were 45 percent in favor, 51 percent opposed. No change.
Even in the wake of the Colorado school shootings, public opinion did not move a great deal. There was an uptick here and there in various specific questions, but no major movement.
It's clear that most Americans support gun control, and that they have for some years. And there have not been major shifts in public opinion this year that would substantially energize any wavering politicians. So, if politicians just follow the polls-and the polls have been pro-gun control for years-why is there movement now, rather than in past years?
The simple answer usually given to that question is the power of the National Rifle Association. The NRA is an effective lobbying force against gun control, bucking the tides of public opinion. The NRA is no doubt effective. But one can't argue that politicians are brazenly poll-dependent and at the same time claim that politicians just do what the NRA dictates. One or the other can be true, but not both.
It may be instructive to consider the view of the political pollsters themselves. After all, they are the ones who provide the poll advice to the politicians, so they are in a position to tout their influence. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Bill McInturff gave similar assessments at the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research this spring. Each strongly and carefully stated that the politicians they work for do not look to polls for direction on the substance of issues that are central to their political values. They may look for guidance on how to talk about the issues, but not on how to vote on them.
Both admitted there may be some politicians who slavishly follow the poll numbers-just not the ones they work for. It's important to add that neither pollster said politicians never use polls to decide their positions-only that they do not do so on issues that are really important to them personally. Clearly, polls can sway the politicians on some issues.
Where does this leave us? The fashionably cynical views about polling and politicians are just not quite right. At least on some issues-and gun control may be one of them- politicians are clearly voting based on values and motivations other than simple poll results. Could it be that some issues are so important, or so contentious, that legislators actually have to make up their own minds? Even the most cynical critic would probably agree with that premise.
Public opinion-as expressed through polls and in other ways-is a powerful force for most politicians. Except for the most dogmatic of theorists, most people would agree that politicians should listen to the voters who put them in office.
The question, then, is not should the politicians listen to the public's views, but rather how much impact should public opinion have on the politicians' daily decision-making.