GOVT. 157: Politics, Opinion and Participation

Spring 2007



Professor: Kimberly Nalder, Ph.D.

Office: Tahoe 3121


Phone: 278-6693

Office Hours: T/Th 3:00-4:30 and by appointment




Course Objectives


One of the most crucial concepts in political science is that of public opinion and its role in representative democracies.  This course will explore the normative and theoretical rationales for studying public opinion in the political arena.  Through readings, lecture, a research project and hands-on research analysis, students should emerge from this class with a better understanding of the origins and nature of public opinion, the methods and pitfalls of measuring and reporting it, and the utility of public opinion for political elites.  We will place special emphasis on current events and the meaning of public opinion in the electoral context.  In addition, this course will help students learn to critically evaluate public opinion polls in terms of methodology, scope, and validity. This course will emphasize critical thinking, research writing, current event analysis, social science methodology, and vigorous discussion.


The course will cover several fascinating and important questions:


            1. Why does public opinion matter in a representative democracy?

            2. How is public opinion measured?

            3. How do individuals form opinions and how are these opinions aggregated?

            4. Can public opinion be manipulated? How? By whom?

            5. What is the relationship between public opinion and governance?

            6. How can we be critical consumers of polling data?

            7. Where does “public opinion” come from?

            8.  How can diverse opinions be reflected in the public sphere?



Required Readings


There are two textbooks required for this course:


Erikson, Robert and Kent L. TedinAmerican Public Opinion, seventh edition, Pearson Longman publishers, 2005


Traugott, Michael and Paul J. Lavrakas, The Voter’s Guide to Election Polls, third edition, Rowman and Littlefield, 2004



I also highly recommend subscribing to a major daily newspaper, such as The New York Times or The Washington Post.  The Sacramento Bee is also acceptable, since it will have superior coverage of California politics.  Course discussion, participation, and research are all greatly improved if you come prepared with current events knowledge.


Course Requirements and Grading



            There will be a brief quiz every other Thursday covering the preceding two week’s readings and lectures.   This is a tool intended to help you to avoid the dreaded “exam cram”.   It also gives me a window into any concepts that need further clarification. The quizzes constitute a major portion of your grade.  Be sure to read and review carefully each week.  You will be allowed to throw out your lowest quiz score – that includes a zero that you might get if you miss a quiz.  No makeup quizzes will be given.



            The midterm and final exams for this class will be on Thursday  April 5 and Thursday, May 24th at 10:15-12:15.  The exams are open note, but not open book.  For this reason, I encourage you to take careful lecture notes and to also take reading notes.  The exams will require you to apply information you have learned during the semester, and to show that you have absorbed the information.


Research Paper

            A 7-10 page research paper on a major question in public opinion research is due on May 15th.  Any paper turned in with serious grammar or spelling problems or seriously lacking in length or quality will be returned to you for a re-write with an automatic point deduction.  No credit will be given until the paper meets minimal college-level paper standards.  A detailed paper assignment sheet will be available on the course web page.



            This course will include some smaller scale homework assignments as well as some in-class projects.  These assignments are designed to help you learn the material more thoroughly.


Cheating and/or plagiarism: At the risk of being clichéd, you only cheat yourself when you cheat in class.  Just do the work.  The penalties will adhere to University Policy, but at the minimum will result in an F for the exam or assignment in question.  The relevant university policy can be accessed at:



            Attendance is expected, and your participation is appreciated.  As an academic community, we can all learn from each other.  Your input and insight is a valuable part of the learning experience for the entire class.  Please come to class prepared to get involved and engaged – this will not be a passive-learning class.


                                                                                    Points              Percentage

Quizzes                                               total                300                  30%

Participation and attendance                                      100                  10%

In-class and homework                                              150                  15%

Paper                                                                         200                  20%

Midterm                                                                   125                 12.5%

Final                                                                          125                  12.5%




Class Policies

No Make-Up . There will be no make-up exams offered unless you bring documentation of severe illness or a death in the family.  The same is true of assignments and quizzes.


Turn off Beeping Things.  Please remember to turn off your cell phones, PDA’s, etc.  I reserve the right to answer any cell phone that rings during class.


Please be respectful and do not text or e-mail during class.


Class Disruptions:  It is important that the learning environment be free of distractions and disruptions. Any student who creates a disturbance or otherwise prohibits the class from proceeding smoothly will be ejected from the class.  Further penalties will be imposed if the behavior recurs. The University policy can be viewed here:


Courtesy.  Please be respectful of other’s opinions during discussions.  Rest assured that everyone will get a chance to express themselves.  Please sit near the door if you have to leave early for any reason.


Completion.  If you fail to turn in a paper or an assignment, you cannot pass the class, even if your point total would be sufficient.  Be sure to turn in every assignment.


Tentative Schedule


Section I: Where do opinions come from?  How are they formed?


  • Jan 30/F 1      Public Opinion and American Democracy

                                                Ch. 1 Erickson and Tedin (E&T)


·         Feb 6, 8           Political Psychology/ Cognition/ Opinion Formation

                        Ch. 3 E&T


·         Feb. 13, 15       Political Socialization: Ideology/ Party Identification

                                                Ch. 5 E&T       



  • Feb. 20, 22                  Political Culture and Frames: Red and Blue Thought?

                                                Professor George Lakoff online article

                                    One Nation.... by David Brooks.

Try the typology classification test from the Pew Center here.


Section II: How is public opinion measured?


·         Feb. 27, M1      Measuring Public Opinion: Polling

                                    Ch. 2 E&T

                                    Ch 1 T&L Traugott & Lavrakas (T&L)


  • March 6, 8      Polling Techniques - Sampling

                                                Ch.  5 T&L

                        Selecting likely voters -- from "mystery pollster". Read parts I, II, and III.


·         March 13, 15   Survey Design and Methods

                                          Ch. 6, 7 T&L



  • March 20, 22  Evaluating and Analyzing Polls, Knowing the Problems

                                                Chs. 9, 10 T&L


*********March 27, 29 Spring Break*********



  • April 3, 5  Election polls and exit polls: pitfalls, mistakes, bragging rights

                                                Chapter 2 T&L

                                    Exit polls 2006 explainer from "mystery pollster"

                                    Midterm Thursday


Section III: What are the patterns?


·         April 10, 12     Dynamics of Mass Opinion

                                                Ch. 4 E&T


·         April 17, 19     Group Difference in Opinion Holding and Democratic Stability

                                    Ch. 6, 7 E&T


·         April 24, 26     Elections and Public Opinion

                                    Ch. 9 E&T

                                    Ch. 3 T&L


·         May 1, 3     The Influence of Media

                                          Ch.  8 E&T

                                    Ch. 4, 8 T&L


Section IV: How is public opinion used in a Democracy?


  • May 8, 10          Using  Public Opinion : Elected Officials

                                                Ch. 10 E&T

Manipulating Public Opinion with Moral Justification
Kathleen M. McGraw
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science > Vol. 560, The Future of Fact
(Nov., 1998), pp. 129-142

Note: you will need to use JSTOR through the library databases to find this pdf.


·         May 15, 17        Public Opinion and Democracy: An Assessment

                                    Ch. 11 E&T 

Paper Due on Tuesday




******Final Exam: Thursday, May 24,  10:15-12:15 ******





 NOTICE: The CSU Administration and the CFA (Faculty Union) have failed to reach a contract agreement for 20 months.  It is possible that there will be a strike this semester.  I will keep you informed on this possibility as the semester progresses.