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Is Public Opinion Stable? Resolving the Micro-Macro Disconnect in Studies of Public Opinion (WP-12-06)

James Druckman and Thomas Leeper

Public opinion matters, both as a central element of democratic theory and as a substantive foundation for political representation. The origins and nature of public opinion have long attracted the attention of social science. Yet a number of questions remain, and the more perplexing ask whether—and under what conditions—public opinion is stable. Druckman and Leeper argue that an answer to this debate depends in large part on whether one looks at aggregations of individual opinions (i.e., macro public opinion) or at the individual opinions themselves (i.e., micro public opinion). In this paper, the researchers explore the macro/micro divide and offer a framework for when opinions are likely to be stable or volatile that reflects both the content of the political environment and the nature of individuals’ opinions. With reference to research on public opinion dynamics surrounding the USA Patriot Act, they discuss the implications of opinion stability for interpreting public opinion and for understanding the normative implications of public preferences.

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Thomas Leeper, PhD candidate, Political Science, and Graduate Research Assistant, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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