GOVT. 157: Politics, Opinion and Participation

Spring 2010



Professor: Kimberly Nalder, Ph.D.

Office: Tahoe 3121


Phone: 278-6693

Office Hours: W 4:30-5:30, F 1-2 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:


Clawson, Rosalee and Zoe Oxley, Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, 2008.  ISBN: 978-0872893047


Fowler, Floyd J. , Survey Research Methods, 4th Edition, 2008. ISBN: 978-1412958417



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 week, posted on Web CT on Thursdays. They must be completed by class time the following Monday.  The quizzes will cover the preceding two week’s readings and lectures/discussions.   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.  Quizzes are open note.  Since you have multiple days to take them, no makeup quizzes will be given.



            There is one exam for this course – a comprehensive open-note final on Wednesday, May 19 from 3-5. The exam is open note, but not open book.  For this reason, I encourage you to take careful lecture notes and to also take reading notes.  The exam will require you to apply information you have learned during the semester, and to show that you have absorbed the content.


Survey Project

            The paper for this class will take the form of a proposal to submit questions to a national academic survey (GSS).  You will be required to write valid survey questions and justify your topic in terms of previous research and current interest.  It will require a good working knowledge of survey research methods and public opinion literature, and will serve as an opportunity for you to demonstrate your mastery of the material for the class.  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.  The paper is due on Monday, April 26. Questions are due Monday, April 5. Late papers will lose 5% per day (including weekends).  A paper is considered late if it is turned in after the start of class on the due date.  No exceptions. Only hard copy versions of the paper count!



            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.



            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                 350                   35%

Participation and attendance                                     100                   10%

In-class and homework                                              100                   10%

Paper                                                                          200                   20%               

Final                                                                            250                  25%





Class Policies


Attendance: Mandatory.  Should you miss an in-class activity or be absent more than twice, your grade will suffer.  Being in class is vital to your learning. If you miss 8 or more class sessions, you will automatically get an F in the class.


No Make-Up . There will be no make-up exams offered unless you bring documentation of severe illness or a death in the family.  In the case of quizzes, you have multiple days to complete them, so there should be very few valid reasons for doing so.   I do not give incompletes.  You know the deadlines now.  Prepare accordingly.


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:


Turn off Beeping Things.  Please remember to turn off your cell phones, laptop sounds, etc.  No texting or e-mailing during class!  If you just MUST chat with someone, please do it outside of class.  Our sessions are for learning.  I reserve the right to ban laptops in class if a problem develops.  If your use of electronics becomes disruptive, you may be asked to leave the classroom.


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, you cannot pass the class, even if your point total would be sufficient. 

State of CA Furloughs  

This year, the State of California is experiencing an unprecedented budget crisis.  One of the ways  (in addition to raising your tuition) that the Governor, Legislature, and CSU administration have chosen to address the problem is through furloughs of state employees, including all faculty, staff, and administrators at the CSU.  A furlough means mandatory un-paid days off for employees; there are 18 of these this year for faculty.  You will notice that this syllabus schedule reflects some of those furlough days.  Your educational experience will be negatively impacted by these massive budget cuts, but the days have been scheduled to minimize disruption to our class.



Tentative Schedule


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


  • Jan 25/27      Public Opinion and American Democracy

                                    C&O Chapter 1


·         Feb 1/3            Political Psychology/ Cognition/ Opinion Formation

                        C&O Chapter 4

                        Quiz 1 posted Thursday


·         Feb. 8/10       Political Socialization: Ideology/ Party Identification

                                   C&O Chapter 2



  • Feb. 15/17       Political Culture and Frames: Red and Blue Thought?

                                                **Monday is a Campus Furlough Day – no class**

                                    Professor George Lakoff online article

                                    C&O Chapter 5

                                    Quiz 2 posted Thursday


Section II: How is public opinion measured?


·         Feb. 22/24      Measuring Public Opinion: Polling

                        Fowler 1 and 2


  • March 1/3       Polling Techniques - Sampling

                           Fowler 3                  

                        Quiz 3 posted Thursday


·         March 8/10   Survey Design and Methods

                              Fowler 4 and 6

                              **Furlough Day on Wednesday – no class (work on questions)**


  • March 15/17  Evaluating and Analyzing Polls, Knowing the Problems

                                                Fowler 7 and 10

                                    Quiz 4 posted Thursday


  • March 22/24 Election polls and exit polls: pitfalls, mistakes, bragging rights

                           What you should know about exit polls

*********March 29, 31 Spring Break*********



  • April 5/7  Political Knowledge and Misinformation

                                    C&O Chapter 7           

                                    Quiz 5 posted Thursday

                                    *Questions due Monday*


Section III: What are the patterns?


·         April 12/14     Group Difference in Opinion Holding and Democratic Stability

                                    C&O Chapters 8 and 9


·         April 19/21    Elections and Public Opinion

                              Lascher, Edward, Hagen and Rochlin, "Gun Behind the Door" Journal of Politics 1996 58:760-775

                              (need to search for it in the library database)

                              Quiz 6 posted Thursday


·         April 26/28     The Influence of Media

                                    C&O Chapter 3

                        *Paper Due Monday*


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


·         May 3/5      Trust and Support

                              C&O Chapter 10

                          Quiz 7 posted Thursday        


  • May 10/12    Public Opinion and Democracy: An Assessment        

                              C&O Chapter 12


                  **Furlough Day on Wednesday – no class (final study groups)**                



******Final Exam: Wednesday, May 19,  3:00-5:00 ******