It's fitting that Chris Skovron, a political scientist who studies perceptions of public opinion, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Both politicians and marketers look to Columbus to figure out what the American public wants. "Columbus' demographics are very similar to the country as a whole, so we're a test market for all kinds of things," Skovron explains. ("Many of the experimental Wendy's sandwiches over the years have been awesome!" he adds.) What's more, Ohio remains a crucial swing state. Every presidential election, pundits speculate about how the tailgaters at Ohio Stadium or the folks strolling through Columbus Commons will vote.
And yet, despite all that polling data, Skovron's latest research suggests that most people still have no idea what the public thinks about the most pressing issues in American politics, including same-sex marriage, gun control, immigration, and abortion. Political party leaders and candidates running for office don't know. Most people don't know how most other people think about any of those things.
Skovron finds a pattern in these misperceptions of public opinion. Most Americans believe that conservative issue positions are more popular than they actually are. Surprisingly, this finding holds true for both Republican and Democratic respondents. In a nation where over 70 percent of citizens support background checks for guns, both Republican and Democratic candidates estimate that support at just 40 to 60 percent.
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Skovron is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who has been awarded fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Scholars Strategy Network. He hopes to become a tenure-track professor someday (even though his barber still expects him to run for office).
As a kid, Skovron wanted to be a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians when they were really good in the 1990s. "But I had to quit Little League because I couldn't hit," Skovron admits. He's still a big baseball fan.
When asked about his biggest accomplishments, Skovron says, "Honestly, I feel like I haven't done a lot." He considers his research on the perceptions of public opinion incomplete and is looking forward to studying the reasons behind the misperceptions that he's uncovered.
Skovron hopes that his work will ultimately help politicians and advocates. "I've been particularly happy the couple of times when I've met politicians who have read about my research and re-evaluated whether their perceptions of what the public wants are accurate," he says.
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