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Public Supports Concept of Missile Defense

Public Supports Concept of Missile Defense

But public opinion on issue is not settled

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- President Bush continues to advocate the immediate deployment of a missile defense system, even though most countries in the world, including America's closest allies, oppose the effort, and the technological merits of the proposed system have yet to be proved. Bush's position on this matter seems consistent with the top-of-mind reaction of the American public to such a proposal. Still, few Americans have followed the issue closely, and most are unaware that the United States does not already have such a system.

Major findings from Gallup and other polls on this issue include:

  • Americans tend to favor the concept of a missile shield.
    • According to a Gallup poll conducted February 1-4, 2001, 44% of Americans expressed support for research and possible development of a defense system against nuclear missiles, while 20% were opposed, and more than a third -- 36% -- said they were unsure.
    • When Gallup asked the same question in July 19-22, 2001, results show slightly less support and somewhat more opposition: 41% support the proposal, 28% oppose it, and 31% express no opinion. This is somewhat surprising since a successful test of the system occurred just days before the poll was conducted.
    • The above question explicitly asked respondents if they were unsure, thus eliciting the high proportion not expressing an opinion in either direction. 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 July 2000, 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.
  • However, most Americans are not following the issue closely.
    • A July 2000, Gallup poll showed that just 11% of Americans said they had been following the issue very closely, ranking the issue in the lower quarter of issues measured by Gallup over the past several years.
    • These results are similar to those obtained by the May 2000 People and the Press poll, when 10% said they had been following the issue "a lot," and to the CBS News /New York Times poll the same month that found 6% of Americans saying they had heard "a lot" about the issue. The two polls used different scales -- the People and the Press offered a 3-point scale and the CBS/NYT a 4-point scale -- which probably accounts for the slight difference in results between them. Still, the point is clear -- 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, that showed 58% of the public believed the United States already had a missile defense system, and another 14% were unsure. Just 28% correctly said that the United States does not currently have such a system.
  • As a consequence, public opinion is unsettled and changes in wording make a major difference in how people respond to the issue.
    • In an ABC News 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 "opponents say it wouldn't work, would cost too much, and could create a news 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 U.S. against nuclear missiles." The poll then 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.
    • However, once the supporters were told that the system had already cost $60 billion, about one in nine no longer expressed support, mostly indicating 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, though at a lower margin of 47% to 35%.
    • After supporters were told that many scientists say the system is unlikely to work, respondents opposed the system by more than a two-to-one margin -- 56% opposed to 25% in favor.
    • Similarly, when told that building the system means the United States would have to break the arms control treaty it now has with Russia, 52% of initial supporters said they opposed the system and only 28% supported it.
    • Finally, if respondents believed the system had a good chance of working successfully, they would 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)







This kind of hypothetical polling (where respondents are given arguments both for and against an issue) is limited in its projection of the general public's reaction to the arguments. The dissemination of information in the country at large is not as clear and thorough as it is 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 attitudes on the matter could undergo a significant fluctuation in the wake of a public debate about the merits of the proposed missile system.

Survey Methods

Results from Gallup polls are based on telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18+. One poll was conducted February 1-4, 2001, and the other July 19-22, 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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