It’s not very often that public opinion quickly shows noticeable change. Although people’s opinions can change from day to day, we usually don’t see it at the level of a population. And when we do, it tends to happen very slowly.
For example, big national surveys show increasing acceptance of homosexuality, but these changes took decades. From 1970 to 1990, opinions barely changed at all, and even though there’s been change since then, it’s been incremental, changing a little each year.
But it doesn’t mean that sweeping public opinion change never happens. Recently, the United States faced a decision over whether it wanted to explicitly deny entrance into the U.S. from a specific selection of countries. Last January, President Trump signed an executive order enacting such a travel ban, identifying countries such as Yemen, Iran, and Libya as countries from which travelers could not enter the U.S. Because these countries’ residents are predominantly Muslim, many called the executive order a “Muslim ban.”
Public Opinion on the Travel Ban
The idea of a travel ban goes back to Trump’s presidential campaign, and because there was a national conversation about this possibility, polling groups asked Americans what they thought. One such poll specifically asked: “Do you support or oppose suspending immigration from ‘terror prone’ regions, even if it means turning away refugees from those regions?” In November, 2016, 50% of respondents supported the policy, and 44% opposed it (some people offered no opinion).
In February, 2017, just after President Trump signed the executive order, the same polling group asked the same question, and this time the responses were exactly opposite! Now only 44% supported the policy, and 50% opposed it.
These numbers may not seem like a “big swing,” but in public opinion terms, this is big. In the course of just a few months, a substantial portion of the population came to oppose something they’d once supported. So what changed?
An Affront to American Values
Persuasive campaigns struggle to find exactly the right way to make their points and change people’s minds. How can you strike a chord with an audience and get them to see an issue in a new light?
Plenty of research in psychology has shown how useful it can be to target an audience’s values. If an audience values fairness, they tend to be more persuaded by arguments about the fairness of a policy. If an audience values loyalty and purity, they tend to be more persuaded by arguments appealing to loyalty and purity.
Recently, a group of political scientists proposed that speaking to values was an important part of the big swing in public opinion on the travel ban. Specifically, they highlighted the importance of portraying the travel ban “as being at odds with egalitarian principles of American identity and notions of religious liberty.”
They carefully analyzed newspaper articles relevant to the travel ban. After Trump signed his executive order, references to American identity increased. They suggest that by framing the ban as inconsistent with basic American values, the national conversation succeeded in changing minds.
Tracking Public Opinion Change on the Muslim Ban
So far, the evidence is compelling but not perfect. National polls indicate opinion change, and media analysis indicate a shift in how we talked about the issue. But the polls had different respondents at each time point, and we still can’t say that the talking points in the media are related to shifting opinions.
To clear this up, the researchers ran a study of their own. They surveyed hundreds of Americans right before the executive order, and then they surveyed the same people just after the executive order. Their results mirror the national polls. In January, 44% of respondents opposed the ban, but just a couple weeks later, 51% of the very same respondents opposed the ban.
But did this have anything to do with framing the ban as an affront to American values? The researchers took an indirect route to answering this question, asking respondents how strongly they identified as American. If portraying the ban as inconsistent with American values is what changes minds, then it should be the people who hold those values most strongly that changed their minds the most. The results supported that explanation. The more people identified strongly as American, the more they came to oppose the travel ban.
The results of this research show the rapid change in public opinion on the travel ban and suggest an important role of American values. So when it comes to changing people’s minds, you just need to invoke American identity? As easy as that sounds, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When opinions change this much, there are many things that have to happen, and as we continue studying, we’ll uncover more and more of those critical factors. For now, though, we have a compelling illustration of widespread attitude change with a helpful explanation for how it may have happened.