Public opinion is no more than this,
what people think other people think.
- Alfred Austin, 1891
in Prince Lucifer
I've always been partial to the above definition of public opinion -- and to Victorian-era plays named after the devil, but that's a different story. The play itself sucks. I read it in grad school when I came across this definition. Kept the definition, forgot the play.
Scholars in various fields have nibbled around the idea that the perception of opinion matters. Read spiral of silence, or false consensus, or pluralistic ignorance, or bandwagon effect, or third-person effects and you'll find the roots lie in what people think other people think. The consequences depend on your theoretical approach. In spiral of silence, for example, the perception that one is in a distinct minority on some issue creates a fear of isolation and results in people being a little less likely to speak out on their position. The "spiral" in this case is the slow disappearance of minority viewpoints.
Okay, we've had our dose of Theory for the Day. So what?
Perception matters. If people sense a shift in the opinion climate, some will follow and some will simply grow more quiet, some will jump on the bandwagon and some will root louder for the underdog. It's interesting that as the presidential campaign gets closer to ending (thank God!) and Obama eases away from McCain, we've seen some ugliness on both sides. The perception of opinion going against your way can lead to people staring at a TV screen in disbelief. The poster child for this is the guy at the McCain rally the other day who begged McCain to go negative, that he can't believe America is following Obama. It's fascinating stuff.
I should also mention polls here and the discrediting of polls when they go against our side. "They never asked me or anyone I know" is often heard from people who don't like what the polls tell us about the opinion climate. Since we tend to hang out with people like ourselves, we create these artificial bubbles of like-minded opinion. When polls say otherwise, they just don't make sense. My guess is people for McCain right now are scratching their heads, wondering how this is happening (it's the economy, stupid). Supporters of Kerry and Gore did the same thing in 2004 and 2000.
It's human nature. Our perception of opinion is biased by those we hang out with, those we talk to, those we see in our neighborhoods or at work. When a broader measure of opinion disagrees with that, we're stumped. And that screws with our perceptions of opinion. Some people correct their own estimations of opinion, some argue with the source of the disagreement.
Again, cool stuff.