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Public Opinion on the "4s" Through Recent History

Public Opinion on the "4s" Through Recent History

Now that we are firmly ensconced in the summer of 2014, it is a good time to take stock of what was on the American public's mind 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 years ago -- in the early summer of previous years ending in "4" going back to the Eisenhower days. Some surprisingly interesting and important things were going on in years ending in "4", and public opinion in those years was always revelatory, sometimes surprising.

The most interesting way to gain insights into public opinion in each year is to look at what Americans were saying was the most important problem facing the nation. We can start with 2004. In that year, the most important problem was clearly the war in Iraq. By 2004, Americans had moved to the point where a majority disapproved of the war. That marked the quickest "souring" on a war in Gallup's history -- just a year and a few months after the war began in March 2003. George W. Bush's job approval rating was still relatively high at 49%, coming down from the all-time high of 90% registered in a classic "rally effect" after the 9/11 attacks. Bush held on to enough positive feelings to win victory over John Kerry in the election that fall, although his fortunes in his second term were to deteriorate, in significant part because of the lingering negative feelings on the part of the American public toward the war in Iraq.

Ten years earlier, in 1994, President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton were still involved in the attempt to fashion a massive reform of healthcare in this country -- an attempt that ultimately failed. The most important problem facing the country in the early summer of 1994, however, was not healthcare (although it was high on the list) but instead crime. In fact, by September of 1994 President Clinton would sign into law the "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994" which represented the largest crime bill in the history of the country. Clinton's job approval ratings in June 1994 were between 44% and 49%, just a tad higher than Obama's today, but they were on their way down. Clinton's Democratic Party suffered major losses in the midterm elections that year, and Republicans took over both houses in the fall elections. One of the big issues on people's minds in early summer 1994 was O.J. Simpson, who was sought by police in the murder of his former wife and Ron Goldman, and whose famous low-speed police pursuit in a white Ford Bronco captivated the attention of the American public. A June 22, 1994, Gallup poll showed that 66% of Americans thought that the murder charges against O.J. Simpson were definitely or probably true, while just 16% said they were not. The public was split 46% to 46% in terms of saying that the media in the O.J. situation were acting responsibly versus irresponsibly.

Ten years before that, in 1984, unemployment still reigned as the top problem facing the country while the U.S. continued to recover from a major recession in the early 1980s. But the economy was recovering. Ronald Reagan's approval rating had dropped to as low as 35% in 1983, but along with the economy, it was fast recovering, and was at a robust 55% by June 1984. Reagan's campaign team that year highlighted the newly positive situation in the U.S. by extolling that it was "Morning in America," and Reagan was to go on to win re-election very handily against Democrat Walter Mondale that fall. In the summer of 1984, Gallup was asking Americans if they used their seat belt. Only 25% said they did. Sixty percent of Americans said that they favored the use of mandatory air bags.

The summer of 1974 will forever be remembered as the time when a president of the United States -- Richard M. Nixon -- resigned from office, the first and only time that has occurred. The issue, of course, was Watergate, and the news investigations and congressional hearings that summer were reaching a point where the House of Representatives' vote to impeach Nixon was looking to be a certainty. Perhaps surprisingly, given this huge focus on Watergate, Americans indicated that the most important problem facing the country was not this scandal or what it indicated about government, but the cost of living -- although dysfunctional government came in second. Nixon's job approval rating in June 1974 was 26%, heading to a low of 24% just before he resigned. That 24% was not the lowest in Gallup history, however. Harry Truman received a 22% job approval rating in February 1952. A Gallup survey conducted in late May/early June 1974 found that 50% of Americans said there was enough evidence to impeach Nixon and bring him to trial before the Senate; 32% said there was not, and 18% saying they didn't know. By early August, just before Nixon resigned, 65% said there was enough evidence to impeach Nixon.

In 1964 Americans told Gallup that race was the most important problem facing the country, a sentiment that no doubt stemmed from news coverage of Lyndon B. Johnson's historic push that summer of a new Civil Rights bill, which Congress passed and which LBJ signed into law on July 2. Despite controversy over the Civil Rights bill, Johnson's job approval remained sky high at 74% in June, as he continued to benefit from the rally effect that stemmed from the nation's grief over the assassination of John F. Kennedy the previous November. Gallup was just beginning to ask Americans in 1964 about Vietnam, the war that ultimately was to cause Johnson's job approval ratings to plummet, to stymie his running for a second elected term in 1968, and to be the issue that, to this day, is most associated with his presidency. In April 1964 Gallup asked Americans if they had "given any attention to the developments in South Vietnam" and just 36% said "yes." In a separate question, 16% said that the U.S. was handing affairs in South Vietnam as well as could be expected, while 17% said badly, and the rest admitted they were not following what was happening there. By late summer 1964, Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and the U.S. began to ramp up its military involvement in the country. By November of 1964, Vietnam was beginning to show up as the most important problem facing the country.

In 1954, Americans indicated that war and the threat of war was the most important problem facing the country, including in particular the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Dwight Eisenhower, who as an Army general had been in overall command of the historic D-Day landing on Normandy beaches just 10 years earlier, was enjoying a healthy job approval rating of 62% in June 1954. Gallup was asking Americans in 1954 about Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and about cigarettes. McCarthy was holding hearings designed to ferret out what he announced were hundreds if not thousands of communists in the U.S. government. In February of 1954, Americans held a 46% favorable, 36% unfavorable image of McCarthy. But by March, his image had turned negative, and in a June 1954 Gallup survey, 34% of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of McCarthy, while 45% had an unfavorable opinion. Meanwhile, other Gallup polling showed that less than half of Americans -- 41% -- believed that smoking caused cancer, although 30% said that they didn't know either way. A little less than half of American adults smoked cigarettes at that point.


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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