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Invoking Public Opinion: Polls, Policy Debates, and the Future of Social Security


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  • Fay Lomax Cook
  • Jason Barabas
  • Benjamin I. Page
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    Democracy, according to most accounts, is supposed to involve policymakers paying attention to ordinary citizens. One way that policy elites might be expected to demonstrate their attention to the public is by explicitly acknowledging, mentioning, and discussing public opinion. In this paper we address two research questions: (1) How do policy elites invoke public opinion about Social Security? (2) To what extent do the claims seem accurate based on evidence available to us through public opinion surveys? We used presidential statements on Social Security and witnesses' statements in congressional hearings on Social Security to learn the number and kinds of claims that policy elites make about Social Security. To find public opinion data on Social Security, we conducted a Lexis-Nexis search of the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Our analyses show that the majority of claims about public opinion are general (i.e., no specific refer-ence to a representative aggregate distribution of public opinion) rather than specific and have to do with confidence in the future of Social Security, the public's desire for reform of Social Security, the popularity of Social Security, and support for presidential initiatives and positions. When the president and congressional witnesses make general claims about public opinion, they are less likely to be backed by evidence than are their specific claims. We conclude by discussing our concern about how well and how accurately policy elites make use of public opinion data in making claims about what the public thinks.

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    Paper provided by Institute for Policy Resarch at Northwestern University in its series IPR working papers with number 00-5.

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    Handle: RePEc:wop:nwuipr:00-5

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