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Americans' Views of Terrorism as a Problem Facing the Nation

Americans' Views of Terrorism as a Problem Facing the Nation

Terrorism is one of those issues that Americans hold as a "bubbling under" issue and concern. When probed about terrorism specifically, Americans rate it as an important issue and one that they are concerned about. However, without prompting, relatively few Americans mention terrorism as the top problem facing the country, much less than at many other points in time since the 9/11 attacks.

Here is a chart from earlier this year that helps explicate these findings. This chart shows both Americans' rating of the importance of and their current level of satisfaction with a series of issues.

Terrorism is clearly important; it ranks well above average for all of the issues tested. At the same time, it is one of the two issues about which Americans are the least dissatisfied -- along with the military. In short, although terrorism was a critical issue, at the point at which these data were collected, it was something that Americans thought was under control.

These data were from January, so it's possible things could have changed since then. But our most recent update on Americans' views of the most important problem facing the country comes from the quite recent Sept. 4-7 interviewing, and shows only a small uptick in the percentage spontaneously mentioning terrorism in their responses -- from about 1% or less in recent months, to 4% now. As explained in the story, this doesn't mean that terrorism isn't seen as an important problem, but does underscore that Americans -- even at this point, with the increasing attention paid to ISIS and other situations -- are highly unlikely to perceive it as the nation's top problem. (We did see 3% who mentioned the situation in Iraq specifically, the same as in August, up from 1% in July. But still, quite low.)

The trend over time on mentions of terrorism as the nation's top problem has been down since the very big jump up just after 9/11. There have been occasional spikes since, but in recent years the trend has settled down to the point where very few mention it year after year.

There are several other recent polls that asked about terrorism directly. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Sept. 3-7 showed a spike in the percentage of Americans saying that, as a country, we are less safe than we were before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That poll showed 47% saying "less safe," the highest in their history of asking the question since 2002.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 91% of Americans say ISIS is a very or somewhat serious threat to the vital interests of the United States. Similarly, CNN's report on a new poll it conducted says, "Seven in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States."

These data underscore the basic finding that, when prompted, Americans do appear worried about ISIS and related threats. Clearly we don't see the same spike in the percent mentioning terrorism as the most important question. Our best conclusion is that terrorism -- like adequate healthcare or a good education -- is an issue that Americans generally always consider to be important when they are asked about it. As of this past weekend, however, these concerns haven't broken through to the point where they are crowding out worries about the economy, jobs, and dysfunctional government.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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