POLS 304: American Public Opinion


Fall Semester 2008

Tuesday, 6:30 pm-9:10 pm; Room DU 246

Dr. April Clark

Office: Zulauf 416

Office Hours: Monday 1:00-3:00 p.m. and Tues 5:00-6:00 pm or by appt.

Office phone: (815) 753-7058

E-Mail: aclarkl@niu.edu




This course examines the origins, content, and impact of American public opinion. We will address four broad questions: How do American citizens think about politics generally? What is public opinion on important matters of American political life? What are the sources of these opinions and the political dispositions underlying them? What are the consequences of these opinions for American politics? In addressing these questions, specific topics of interest include the role of the family and society in political learning, the myth a polarized America, age, gender and racial and ethnic differences in political socialization, the consequences of public opinion, and the influence of political opinion on elections as elements of popular control.


Students use critical thinking methods when examining and evaluating research findings and authors’ opinions, and when developing analytical essays and research papers. Through these activities students are encouraged to think about public opinion and political socialization in a critical and analytical way.    


Class Schedule:


Class meets Tuesday evenings, from 6:30-9:10 PM, during the 15-week term – August 25 through December 1, 2008. The final exam is Tuesday, December 9th at 6:00-7:50 PM.


Course Texts:


Erikson, R.S., & Tedin, K. L. (2007). American public opinion: Its origins, content, and impact. Updated 7th edition. Pearson/Longman: New York. ISBN: 0-321-43019-0


Fiorina, M.P. (2006). Culture war? The myth of a polarized America. 2nd edition. Pearson/Longman: New York ISBN: 0‑321-36606-9


Sources indicated with an asterisk (*) are available through electronic reserve, with links to JSTOR available through NIU’s Library ‘Search our ejournals’ search engine.  All articles can then be read online or printed out.  To find these readings click on the library webpage’s located at http://www.ulib.niu.edu:3515/information/alphadb.cfm and scroll down to “JSTOR” and search for the title of the article in the window. The titles of the articles are given in the reading schedule below.


Supplemental Material:


A few other required readings may be distributed in class as we move along. 


Course Requirements:


Students will be evaluated based on four components:


  • Lecture Reading/Participation (considered in borderline cases): Readings will be assigned for most class meetings. Even though you will not be formally graded on participation in lecture, you are expected to attend all classes, read the assigned readings before each class, and participate actively during the lecture in order to get the most of the course. Good attendance and participation will be taken into consideration to decide borderline letter grade cases. “Class participation” means being prepared for the material to be covered in class each day, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing insightful answers in class.


  • A midterm examination (25%): The midterm will be held in class Tuesday, October 14th. The midterm will consist of multiple-choice and short answer questions, as well as an essay designed to test your understanding of the readings covered up to this point.


  • Term paper (35%): The term paper (8-10 pages) will be due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, November 11th, and will be on a topic of your choosing. You will choose a political issue that interests you and research public opinion on that issue over time. Your paper will use scholarly and polling sources to describe and explain American public opinion on your topic. You should pose a question about what explains differences in public opinion on some dimension (e.g., why do some people support policy X and some people oppose policy X). You should pose a hypothesis based on course materials and utilize survey data to support your claims. Each student will submit a specific topic, research outline, and a tentative reference list, no later than Week 3—Tuesday, September 9. More information will be provided about the term paper requirements in class.


  • A final examination (40%): The final exam is Tuesday, December 9th, 6-7:50 pm. It will be comprehensive though focusing more heavily on material covered since the midterm, and will consist of the same format as the midterm with multiple-choice, short answer questions, and an essay.


Basic Policies


Missed exams. If a medical need or emergency situation results in your missing assignments, please communicate with me. I am willing to be accommodating but communication and documentation is necessary.


Late papers. : I do not accept late papers.  Papers must be turned in on time by the beginning of class November 11th. If you fail to do so at the beginning of class on the day that the paper is due, you will receive a 0 for the paper. 


Handouts: Handouts are a privilege for those students who attend class on a regular basis. No student is entitled to supplemental materials simply because they are registered for the course.


Classroom Etiquette: Attendance at all class sessions is expected, and the instructor will check the attendance regularly.  Students are allowed to miss a total of six hours or two class meetings during the semester.  An additional absence may result in being dropped from the course.  Active and informed participation in class discussion will significantly help students in borderline grade situations. Students are expected to arrive at class on time. Two tardy arrivals are equivalent to one class absence.  Students are to remain for the entire session unless excused by the professor beforehand or confronted with a serious personal emergency. For instance, it is not acceptable for students to walk in and out of class to answer cell phones, take casual bathroom and smoking breaks, or attend to other personal matters. Please silence your cell phone prior to the start of each lecture.  It is not acceptable to use an iPod, read a newspaper, use a laptop for anything other than taking class notes, or engage in other behavior that distracts one from the class proceedings once the session has begun. No one should talk while someone else is talking; this includes comments meant for a classmate rather than the entire group. Overall, classroom dialogue and behavior should always be courteous, respectful of others, and consistent with the expectations set forth by the university.


Incomplete Requests: Such petitions will be granted only in extraordinary circumstances. The instructor reserves the right to ask for documentation to verify the problem preventing completion of the course by the normal deadlines. If the student does not present documentation from a university office or official, the matter will be left to the instructor’s discretion.


Honor Code: Any written work for this class will be checked electronically through on-line databases to assess the originality of the work. 


Regarding plagiarism, the NIU Undergraduate Catalog states: “students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university.” The above statement encompasses the purchase or use of papers that were written by others.  Please note that the instructor retains copies of papers written in previous years. In short, students are advised to do their own work and learn the rules for proper quoting, paraphrasing, and footnoting.


Students with Disabilities: Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework for which they may require accommodations should notify the University's Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR). CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors. It is important that CAAR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


Exams and grading. Regrades on assignments are possible if you believe there was an error in grading. In order to have a reconsideration of your grade, you must provide a 1-page typewritten memo explaining where you feel the mistake in grading occurred, and I will take a look at it.


Course Grades will be distributed as follows:


            Final Average                                      Final Grade

            90-100 %                                                         A

            80-89 %                                                           B

            70-79%                                                                        C

            60-69%                                                                        D

            Below 60%                                                      F


Course Calendar


The following calendar lists the order of the topics and the date that we will cover them. Courses sometimes do not go as planned and you should be ready to diverge from this syllabus. Any significant changes will be clearly announced in class. You are responsible to stay up to date on course happenings. You should read the texts before coming to class, and try to get an early start on the term paper.



Students will submit assignments in hard copy only


Week 1 August 26:


Readings / Discussions / Activities: Introduction, Expectations, Plan for the quarter


Discuss syllabus and class schedule

Public opinion in democratic societies

Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 1

            Culture war?

Fiorina: Chapter 1


Week 2 September 2:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


Polling: The scientific assessment of public opinion

Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 2

            If America is not polarized, why do so many Americans think it is?

Fiorina: Chapter 2


Week 3 September 9:


Assignments Due:


Paper topic, research outline, and tentative reference list for term paper due at the beginning of class Tuesday, September9th                                                                                                          


Readings /Discussions / Activities:


Microlevel opinion: The psychology of opinion-holding

Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 3

A 50:50 nation? Red and blue state people are not that different and beyond red and blue states

            Fiorina: Chapter 3 and 4

What’s your news IQ? Take a quiz and find out: http://pewresearch.org/newsiq/


Week 4 September 16:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Macrolevel opinion: The flow of political sentiment  

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 4

            Reconciling micro and macro

                        Fiorina: Chapter 9       

Important cleavages on values and basic attitudes exist within the American public – see where

you fit: http://typology.people-press.org/


Week 5 September 23:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


Political socialization and political learning

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 5

Jennings, M. Kent (2007).  “Political Socialization” (handout)


Week 6 September 30:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Agents of political socialization



*Alford, John R., Carolyn L. Funk, and John R. Hibbing.  “Are Political

Orientations Genetically Transmitted?  APSR, 99 (May, 2005), 153-67.

*Tedin, Kent L.  "The Influence of Parents on the Political Attitudes of Adolescents," APSR, 68 (December, 1974), 1579-92.


                        *Andonlina, Molly, Krista Jenkins, Cliff Zukin, and Scott Keeter, “Habits from

Home, Lessons from School: Influences on Youth Civic Engagement,” PS, 36

(April, 2003), 275-80.


            *Sears, David O., and Nicholas A. Valentino.  "Politics Matters: Political Events

as Catalysts for Preadult Socialization."  APSR, 91 (March, 1997), 45-65.

Gimpel, James G., J. Celeste Lay, and Jason E. Schuknecht (2003). “The Terrorist Attacks as Politically Socializing Events” (handout)


Week 7 October 7:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Agents of political socialization (continued)


*Jennings, M. Kent   “Political Knowledge over Time and across Generations,”

POQ, 60 (Summer, 1996), 228-52.


*Jennings, M. Kent and Laura Stoker, “Social Trust and Civic Engagement across Time

and Generations,” Acta Politica  39 (2004), 342-79. 

Week 8 October 14:


**********MIDTERM EXAM – TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14th**********


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Group differences in political opinions

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 7

            A closer look at abortion and homosexuality

                        Fiorina: Chapters 5 and 6


Week 9 October 21:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Group differences in political opinions (continued)


Gender differences:

Sapiro, Virginia (2002). “It’s the Context, Situation, and Question, Stupid: The Gender Basis of Public Opinion” (handout)

            Racial and ethnic differences:

Calhoun-Brown, Allison (2002). “This Side of Jordan: Black Churches and Partisan Political Attitudes” (handout)

Uhlaner, Carole Jean, and F. Chris Garcia (2002). “Latino Public Opinion” (handout)          

Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream (2007). (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/483/muslim-americans)

            Age differences:

A Portrait of "Generation Next": How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics (2007). (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=300)


Week 10 October 28:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Public opinion and democratic stability

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 6


Week 11 November 4:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:

            The news media and political opinions

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 8


Week 12 November 11:


Assignments Due:


            Term paper due at the beginning of class – late papers are not accepted


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Elections as instruments of popular control

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 9

            Have electoral cleavages shifted?

                        Fiorina: Chapter 7


Week 13 November 18:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            The public and its elected leaders

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 10

            The 2004 election and beyond

                        Fiorina: Chapter 8


Week 14 November 25:


Readings / Discussions / Activities:


            Public opinion and the performance of democracy

                        Erikson and Tedin: Chapter 11

            How did it come to this and where do we go from here?

                        Fiorina: Chapter 10


Week 15 December 2:

            Wrap up and review



**********FINAL EXAM – TUESDAY, DECEMBER 9TH: 6:00 PM TO 7:50 PM**********