Before Marathon Bombings, American Concern over Terrorism Was At Lowest Point Since 9/11

As the investigation into the Boston marathon bombings continues, several polls have recently been published on the impact the Boston attack has had on the public’s sense of threat.  An April 18-21, 2013 Pew Research Center survey  finds that public concern about a future terrorist attack in the United States is basically the same as in their 2010 poll.

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But a Washington Post survey, conducted around a similar time frame, shows that those who are concerned a great deal about future terrorist attacks is higher now (32%)  than in surveys fielded close to the anniversaries of the September 11 attacks in 2008 (18%) and 2007 (25%) – though only slightly higher than in 2006 (29%).  (We assume that public anxiety over terrorist attacks would be palpable on the eve of the September 11 anniversary, which is likely related to the timing of the previous WP surveys).  There may be an immediacy effect in these results, and a media effect, since the story is being so closely covered at the moment.  It will be interesting to view trends on these type of questions in a longer term context after the attention subsides.

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Ten Years On, GOP Faithful Less Positive about Iraq War

The Cakewalk that Wasn’t

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

There have been a lot of retrospective pieces about the Iraq war the past few weeks (before they were overtaken by commentaries about Margaret Thatcher), but Ole R. Holsti, the George V. Allen Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Duke University, has been looking at American attitudes on the Iraq war for quite a while. In “American Public Opinion and the Iraq War,” Holsti, highlights the deep partisan divisions in responses to survey questions about the reasons we went to war and in evaluations of our military operations there. In polls from 2004-2009 self-identified Republican respondents were generally 50 to 60 percentage points more favorable than Democrats when asked if going to war was the right thing to do and was worth the cost. Holsti noted that such a wide partisan gap was “unprecedented in the history of polling on American foreign policy.”

A few years later, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that Americans of all political stripes were generally pessimistic about the benefits of the Iraq conflict. But partisan divisions were still apparent, with some key differences in degree – though not as high as 50 to 60 percent differences mentioned above. Democrats were 27 points more likely to say that the war was not worth the costs (75%, vs. 48% of Republicans). Attitudes toward the Afghan war were not as divided (68% of Democrats, 75% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans said the war was not worth the costs—see figure 1).  The decline in Republican support for the Iraq war was also evident in polls conducted by Pew Research from 2003-2013.  In 2003, 90 percent of Republicans in the Pew survey said the war was the right decision;  by 2013,  markedly smaller majority (58%) of Republicans said the war was the right decision.

Figure 1: War was not worth the costs (%)

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Popping the Question

Throughout these posts I’ve tried to highlight the critical impact of question wording on polling results, and how specific wording can influence responses.  For this reason, I want to highlight Paul Pillar’s blog post this week on The National Interest, “False Choices on Iran,” which focuses on survey question wording about American attitudes toward how to react to Iran’s nuclear program. He refers to a March 2013 survey by Pew Research that asked Americans whether it is “more important” to “prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action” or to “avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Worded this way, 64 percent select the first choice and 25 percent choose the second. Pillar points out several problems with the question wording, including the double-barreled argument that conflates the decision to take military action with concern about Iran developing nuclear weapons. Take a look at his full analysis linked above.

When presented with a broader range of options, several survey organizations have found that Americans are willing to take measures to counter the nuclear threat in Iran, but they stop short of supporting military strikes. The 2012 Chicago Council survey found that the most preferred approaches to ending this threat are currently being pursued: imposing tighter economic sanctions (80%) and continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium (79%). While a substantial minority (45%) support UN authorization of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear energy facilities, a majority of Americans oppose such a strike. Additionally, a clear majority (70%) opposes a unilateral strike by the US without UN authorization if Iran continues to enrich uranium.

Figure 1: Support for UNSC Action on Iran

ABC News/Washington Post polling from 2012 found similar percentages supporting direct diplomatic talks between the US and Iran (81%), increasing international economic sanctions against Iran (74%) and the US bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites (41%) to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This same poll found that two in three Americans also believe that it is a “better idea to see first if economic sanctions against Iran work, even if that allows more time for its nuclear program to progress” (64% versus 26% who say “it is a better idea to attack Iran soon, before its nuclear program progresses any further, even if that means not waiting to see if economic sanctions work”).

CNN/ORC surveys from 2006-2012 have found at least six in ten who consistently say that economic and diplomatic efforts are a better approach than military action. Most recently in February 2012, a majority say that in order to get Iran to shut down its nuclear program, the US should use economic and diplomatic efforts but not take military action against Iran now (60%), compared to 17 percent who think the US should take military action now and 22 percent who prefer not to take action against Iran at this time.

See page 29 in “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium” for more Chicago Council Survey questions on Iran, including public perceptions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.