As noted the other day, academic experiments suggest that Washington drives public opinion more than public opinion drives Washington.  This shouldn’t surprise.  There’s lots of hard evidence of this in the political world.

My favorite example of this is provided in John Zaller’s classic book on public opinion and it goes back to the summer of 1971. Just before President Nixon’s surprise announcement of executive action to impose wage and price controls, only 37 percent of Republican activists supported the idea. Immediately after Nixon’s announcement, however, 82 percent of Republican activists supported them.

Contemporary example abound. During the Bush administration, for instance, the Left was agog over W’s violations of civil liberties in the “war on terror.” Today, little is heard from the organized Left about President Obama’s violations of civil liberties despite the fact that they are little different – and in many ways, worse – than those of President Bush.

Climate change is another excellent case in point. Professors Robert Brulle (Drexel University), Jason Carmichael (McGill University), and J. Craig Jenkins (Ohio State University) recently examined 74 separate public opinion surveys about global warming published from 2002-2010. They were interested in finding the degree to which five factors – extreme weather events, public access to accurate scientific information, media coverage, elite cues, or organized issued advocacy – influenced the level of public concern about climate change. Their conclusion?

The most important factor in influencing public opinion on climate change … is the elite partisan battle over the issue. The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively. This finding points to the effect of polarized political elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting (seemingly) contrary levels of public concern. As noted by McDonald (2009: 52) “When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds.” This appears to be the case with climate change.

If you’re in the climate change fight, the takeaway is that:

A time-series analysis indicates that elite cues and structural economic factors have the largest effect on the level of public concern about climate change. While media coverage exerts an important influence, this coverage is itself largely a function of elite cues and economic factors. Weather extremes have no effect on aggregate public opinion. Promulgation of scientific information to the public on climate change has a minimal effect. The implication would seem to be that information-based science advocacy has had only a minor effect on public concern, while political mobilization by elites and advocacy groups is critical in influencing climate change concern.

If you couldn’t care less about the climate change fight, there’s still a reason to pay attention. When Republican leaders like John McCain and Newt Gingrich decide to speak up about climate change (which they episodically have), one can see an immediate response in the polling data. That’s because Republicans (like Democrats) play “follow the leader” and adjust their own opinions accordingly. When Republicans harden their position on climate change, the Republican rank-and-file likewise follows suit. The same follows for other issues in the political universe.

This helps explain why politicians are less constrained by public opinion than popularly believed. To a large extent, politicians control public opinion more than public opinion controls politicians.

So now you know why the Niskanen Center is primarily engaged in making its case to Washington insiders.