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Public Supports Concept of Missile Defense

Public Supports Concept of Missile Defense

But support wanes if missile system seen as not viable

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- Last week President Bush indicated his intention to push for immediate deployment of a missile defense system, even though current technology has not yet proven completely effective. A Gallup poll in February finds that the public leans favorably toward the concept of a missile defense system, but other polling data show that support falls off dramatically when people learn that the system has not been effective thus far. In general, the public has not been paying a great deal of attention to this issue, and a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted last year showed that only about three in 10 Americans were even aware that the United States does not currently have a defense against incoming ballistic missiles.

According to a Gallup poll conducted February 1-4, 2001, 44% of Americans express support for research and possible development of a defense system against nuclear missiles, while 20% are opposed, and more than a third -- 36% -- say they are unsure.

This question explicitly asked respondents if they were unsure, thus eliciting the high proportion in that category. When respondents are asked their views without an explicit suggestion of unsure, however, both support and opposition increase and the percentage who say they are unsure decreases. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last July showed that 53% of Americans said the government should spend the money necessary to build such a system, 36% said it should not, and only 11% volunteered the response that they had no opinion on the issue.

These results suggest that Americans find the concept of building a missile defense system appealing, and lacking any reason not to build the system, they are more likely to express support for it than opposition. But other results -- once some of the details about the system are made known -- show a less supportive public. And, in general, the way in which the questions are worded in the survey can have a significant influence on the responses that are given.

In an ABC poll conducted at the end of April 2000, respondents were told that the land-and-space-based missile defense system would protect the United States from a "limited nuclear attack," and that the system had already cost $60 billion. Respondents in this poll were also told that "opponents say it wouldn't work, would cost too much, and could create a new arms race." When asked whether they supported or opposed developing the missile defense system after having been given this more negative information, a majority -- 52% -- said they would oppose it, while 44% would support it.

A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in mid-May 2000 first asked people how much they had heard about "the current debate surrounding the proposed missile defense system to protect the United States against nuclear missiles." Then the poll asked respondents whether they would "favor or oppose the United States continuing to try to build this missile defense system against nuclear attack." After having heard two times that the missile shield was intended to defend the country against nuclear attack, 58% of respondents said they favored the system, while 28% were opposed. But then the CBS/New York Times poll presented some negative information about the missile defense system to the supporters, and asked them if in light of these facts, they would still support the shield. The poll also presented opponents with an argument in favor of the missile shield to see if that would change their minds.

The results of these arguments are shown below. Each question was asked only of the supporters or the opponents. The percentages were then recalculated, based on the change in opinion of just that one group of respondents. Thus, as shown below, once the supporters were told that the system had already cost $60 billion, about one in nine no longer expressed support, and instead indicated mostly opposition. A recalculation of attitudes based on that one factor shows that after people are told the system costs $60 billion, there is still net support -- 47% to 35%.

After people are told, however, that many scientists say the system is unlikely to work, Americans oppose the system by more than a two-to-one margin -- 56% are opposed and 25% in favor. Similarly, when Americans are told that building the system means the United States would have to break the arms control treaty it now has with Russia, 52% oppose the system and only 28% support it. Finally, if respondents believe the system has a good chance of working successfully, they support it by an overwhelming margin of 71% to 12%.


Attitudes About Missile Defense System









Initial presentation of question





The United States has already spent $60 billion trying to develop this system. Knowing that, do you [still] favor or oppose … ?"(asked only among the supporters)





"What if many scientists conclude it is unlikely that such a system will ever work, then do you [still] favor or oppose … ?"(asked only of supporters)





"What if continuing to build such a system meant that the United States would have to break the arms control treaty we now have with Russia -- then would you [still] favor or oppose … ?" (asked of supporters only)





"What if the system had a good chance of working successfully to defend against accidental missile launches -- then would you favor or oppose … ?" (asked of opponents only)





Source: CBS News/New York Times poll, May 2000

This kind of hypothetical polling has limits in projecting how the general public might actually react to the arguments, since the dissemination of information in the country at large is not as clear and thorough as when interviewers are talking to respondents in a polling situation. But the results do illustrate how variable public opinion is on the matter of a missile defense system, suggesting that the current levels of support could quickly erode if there is a highly publicized public debate on the issue.

Low Level of Attention to Missile Defense Issue

This variation in opinion most likely reflects the low level of knowledge Americans have about a possible defense shield and thus their susceptibility to being influenced by information provided in the survey itself. A July 2000 Gallup poll showed that just 11% of Americans said they had been following the issue very closely, similar to the results obtained by two other polling organizations in the same time frame. All polls reinforced the same conclusion: Very few Americans pay a great deal of attention to this issue.

This point is reinforced by a CBS News/New York Times poll in July 2000, which showed 58% of the public believing the United States already had a missile defense system, and another 14% who were unsure. Just 28% correctly said that the United States does not currently have such a system.

Survey Methods

Current results from The Gallup Poll are based on telephone interviews with -- 1,003 -- national adults, aged 18+, conducted February 1-4, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.

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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