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Americans More Divided on Strength of National Defense

Nearly as many now say it is “not strong enough” as say it is “about right”

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are more likely now (45%) than they were a year ago (37%) to say the United States' national defense is "not strong enough." At the same time, fewer believe the nation's defense is "about right."

Do You, Yourself, Feel That Our National Defense Is Stronger Now Than It Needs to Be, Not Strong Enough, or About Right at the Present Time?

These results are based on Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted Feb. 1-3.

"When asked about the government's spending on the military and national defense, Americans do not show a great degree of consensus -- 36% say the government is spending 'about the right amount,' 34% say 'too much,' and 27% 'too little.'"

Gallup has asked Americans to evaluate the national defense of the United States periodically since 1984 and yearly since 1999. Americans typically say the U.S. national defense is about right or not strong enough, with relatively few saying it is too strong. Currently, Americans are equally likely to say national defense is about right or not strong enough.

The current figures are similar to the opinions Gallup measured from 2006 to 2008, and the 45% who now believe the nation's defense is not strong enough is just two points shy of the 2008 high. Last year's rosier assessment may have been a temporary shift owing to positive feelings toward the new president, as the poll was conducted during the initial weeks of Barack Obama's administration.

1984-2010 Trend in Americans' Views of Strength of U.S. National Defense

When asked about the government's spending on the military and national defense, Americans do not show a great degree of consensus -- 36% say the government is spending "about the right amount," 34% say "too much," and 27% "too little."

Compared with last year, slightly fewer Americans now say defense spending is about right, with small but equal gains in the percentages who say the United States is spending too much and too little.

Do You Think We Are Spending Too Little, About the Right Amount, or Too Much for National Defense and Military Purposes?

Gallup has asked this question since 1969, and the current results are similar to the historical average over this time.

The high point in the percentage saying the U.S. is spending too much, 52%, came in that initial 1969 measurement, as the U.S. was engaged in the Vietnam War. The high point in saying the U.S. is spending too little on defense came at the very beginning of the Reagan administration, in January 1981. Reagan campaigned on strengthening the military, and greatly increased defense spending during his presidency. By November 1982, the percentage of Americans who said the U.S. was spending too little on defense dropped to 16%.

1969-2010 Trend: Views of Amount U.S. Spends on National Defense and the Military

Views of defense spending vary significantly by partisanship. A majority of Democrats, 53%, say the U.S. spends too much on defense, with 14% saying "too little." On the other hand, 45% of Republicans say too little is spent on defense, with 16% saying "too much." Independents' opinions are more evenly divided.

Views of Defense Spending, by Political Party

Republicans and Democrats also disagree in their views of the strength of the nation's defense. A majority of Republicans say the U.S. national defense is not strong enough (59%). Democrats are most likely to say it is about right (56%), while independents divide about equally between saying it is not strong enough (48%) and about right (45%).

Views of Strength of National Defense, by Political Party

Bottom Line

Americans are less likely this year than last year to say the nation's defense, and the amount the government spends on it, is where they think it should be. Americans' views on the two issues are not entirely consistent, though. Whereas 7% say national defense is stronger than needed, 34% say the government spends too much on defense. And while 45% say national defense is not strong enough, a smaller 27% believe too little is spent in this regard.

These apparent inconsistencies may reflect Americans' priorities for government spending as much as an assessment of the current situation, especially since Democrats tend to favor a reduction in military spending and Republicans an increase. Americans may also be reluctant to call for increased defense spending even if they think the military is not as strong as it should be because they have concerns over the amount of overall government spending in general and the growing federal budget deficit in particular.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 1-3, 2010. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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