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Gallup Review: U.S. Public Opinion on Terrorism

Gallup Review: U.S. Public Opinion on Terrorism

Chart: data points are described in article

The terrorist attacks in Paris this past weekend that killed more than 120 people and wounded over 400 put the issue of terrorism back at the top of the news agenda in the U.S., and certainly have moved the issue more into the consciousness of the American people. A review of American public opinion prior to the attacks provides a context in which to understand the possible consequences of the attacks for Americans' attitudes and concerns.

Measures Showing Increased Concern About Terrorism

Four Gallup measures taken in 2015 prior to the Paris attacks showed an increase in concern about terrorism on the part of the average American:

  • The public's worries about the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S. rose this year by 12 percentage points, from 39% who expressed a great deal of concern in 2014 to 51% in 2015. With that increase in concern, terrorism became the third-highest on the list of 15 concerns included in the list, behind only worry about healthcare and the economy.


  • Worry that oneself or a member of one's family will be a victim of terrorism has drifted up this year to the point where 49% of Americans say they are very or somewhat worried, the highest rating on this measure since late 2001. Personal worry is a fairly elastic measure, ranging from 36% to 42% over the past seven years, coupled with several 47% readings and one 48% reading registered in the decade after 2001. The highest level of concern recorded to date was in 2001 when 59% were personally worried.


  • A June update this year found that Americans' confidence in the U.S. government to protect its citizens from future acts of terrorism had dropped to 67% (a great deal or a fair amount of confidence). This is the lowest level of trust recorded in the history of this trend question, which began in late 2001. As recently as 2012, the U.S. government received a 75% confidence rating. It is possible that some of the explanation for the drop in confidence in the government to protect citizens from terrorism specifically is the overall drop in Americans' confidence in the government in general.


Measures in 2015 Showing Decreased Concern About Terrorism

Two 2015 measures showed a lessened concern:

  • Only 3% of Americans mentioned terrorism as the most important problem facing the nation in Gallup's most recent Nov. 4-8 survey. This percentage has varied over the past 14 years, after reaching a high of 46% in October 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Terrorism mentions jumped up at times in 2004 and 2005, fell again, and then rose in January 2010 after a terrorist in an airplane over Detroit failed to detonate a bomb. In February of this year, 8% mentioned terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and deaths of Western citizens held hostage by Islamic State militants, but within months this had fallen back down to its present level.


In addition to mentions of terrorism, small percentages of Americans in November's most important problem update mentioned national security and international issues.

  • Earlier this year a little less than half of Americans said it was very or somewhat likely that there would be a terrorist attack in the U.S. within the next few weeks. That percentage was down from a reading of 51% taken after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and 62% in early 2011 after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. forces. Prior to that there were numerous times when a majority of Americans said it was very or somewhat likely that there was going to be an attack, including 85% in late 2001 and 73% in early 2003.


Prior to Attacks, ISIS Already Seen as Most Critical Threat to Vital Interests of U.S.

By February of this year, Americans had come to the point where ISIS and international terrorism were more likely to be seen as critical threats to the vital interests of the United States than any others on a list of eight possible threats. This means that perceptions of ISIS as a top critical threat were higher than the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and the military power of North Korea.


Trade-Off Between Preventing Terrorism vs. Preserving Civil Liberties

One key issue in public opinion about terrorism is the question of what Americans think should be done to prevent it. CIA Director John Brennan on Monday stated that the civil liberties protections on surveillance put in place after the Edward Snowden revelations were hampering the nation's ability to track down and find terrorists. Americans, however, have in recent years come down by over a two-to-one margin in favor of the U.S. taking steps to prevent terrorism that do not violate civil liberties, as opposed to taking all steps necessary to prevent terrorism even if civil liberties are violated.

This type of sentiment has been measured going all the way back to 2002, although in the early months of that year the division between the two parts of this trade-off question was much closer.


Less Than Majority Support for Sending Troops to Fight ISIS Before Attacks

An early November Gallup survey found that 43% of Americans favored the U.S. "sending ground troops to Iraq and Syria in order to assist groups in those countries that are fighting the Islamic militants"; 53% were opposed. This was roughly the same as measured in 2014. This measure came before the Paris attacks but after President Barack Obama had announced he was sending 50 special operations troops to Syria to help fight ISIS. Obama said on Monday that he was opposed to sending more troops to fight ISIS in retaliation for the attacks, but the issue will no doubt continue to be discussed in the weeks ahead.

Rally Effect in Obama Job Approval

There is initial evidence of a small rally effect in President Obama's overall job approval rating in the days after the Paris attacks. Obama's approval averaged 51% Friday through Sunday, compared with 47% in the three days prior to Friday. This is not a large increase, but certainly fits the pattern observed in previous years when a threat to the U.S. resulted in a jump in the president's approval rating. Examples include a 35-point jump after the 9/11 attacks, the largest such increase on record, a seven-point jump after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in 2011 and a four-point increase after the bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon that resulted in the deaths of 241 U.S. servicemen in 1983.


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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