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Terrorism and Economy Seen as Top Problems Facing Country Today, but Neither Dominates

Perception of terrorism as most important problem down from last fall

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Terrorism, war and the economy continue to predominate when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the country today. These issues are not dominating the consciousness of Americans to the degree that they did at times last year, however, nor are they dominating to the degree that other problems have in past years.

Four out of 10 Americans now mention terrorism, fear of war, or national security as the country's most pressing issue. That's followed by about three out of 10 Americans who mention some aspect of the economy in response to this question.

At some points in America's recent history, concern about war or international affairs has been so prevalent that up to 70% of those answering the "most important problem" question have mentioned these issues. This was the case, for example, in August 1966, when 69% mentioned the Vietnam War or related topics as the nation's most important problem.

Similarly, much higher numbers of Americans in past years have mentioned the economy when asked about the most important problem facing the country. This was the case in polling conducted in the early 1990s, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

There was a brief period last fall when concern about terrorism and the war neared the two-thirds level. In October, 64% of Americans mentioned terrorism, the war or national security. But the top-of-mind mentions of these issues in response to the "most important problem" question began to fall soon thereafter, and have stayed at about the current levels for the past several months.

The pattern we see now in response to this Gallup Poll question is similar to that observed in the mid- to late 1990s and in 2000 and 2001. No single problem is so salient that a majority of respondents mention it or that it crowds out all others when respondents are asked to name their perception of the most important problem facing the country.

Beyond the economy and the war, respondents do not mention any single domestic concern with any great frequency. Education and morality/ethics are mentioned by 7% of respondents, while 6% mention healthcare.

Additional Key Points

1. There is little difference by political party affiliation in perception of the economy as the No. 1 problem facing the country. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans, 31% of independents and 31% of Democrats mention economic concerns. Similarly, there is little difference by party affiliation in mention of terrorism/national security/war in response to this "most important problem" question.

2. There is also very little difference by gender or age in perception of the most important problem.

Discussion

The responses to this question ("What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?") represent top-of-mind concerns, and are often different from the ratings obtained when we read off a list of problems and ask each respondent to evaluate their importance.

Two categories of responses have typically been most prevalent over the years: economic concerns and concerns relating to the war.

In the spring of both 1989 and 1990, however, drugs became the most important problem -- reflecting the particular focus on drugs and the drug problem at that point in time. Similarly, crime/violence was the most important problem for two years in the late 1990s.

Despite the near general recognition that the United States was in a recession last year, top-of-mind mentions of economic concerns have not risen above 40% since the early 1990s. Ten years ago, in the midst of the last recession, up to 70% of Americans named the economy as the nation's top problem. The economy also dominated top-of-mind thoughts about the most important problem facing the country in the inflationary times of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Data

What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? [Open-ended]

   

Mar
4-7,
'02

Feb
4-6,
'02

Jan
7-9,
'02

Dec
6-9,
'01

Nov
8-11, '01

Oct
11-14, '01

Sep
7-10, '01

   

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

                 
 

ECONOMIC PROBLEMS (NET)

29

40

33

30

24

20

39

1

Economy in general

18

24

21

19

16

13

22

2

Unemployment/jobs

8

11

8

9

6

4

10

3

Taxes

1

1

2

1

1

1

2

4

Recession

1

3

2

1

1

--

2

5

High cost of living/ inflation

1

*

*

1

1

3

1

6

Federal budget deficit/ federal debt

1

1

*

--

--

*

2

7

Wage issues

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

8

Gap between rich and poor

*

*

*

*

*

*

1

9

Fuel/ Oil prices

*

--

*

*

--

*

1

 

Other specific economic

--

--

--

--

--

--

--

                 
 

NON-ECONOMIC PROBLEMS (NET)

75

69

68

75

79

85

65

1

Terrorism

22

24

23

24

37

46

--

2

Fear of war/ feelings of fear in this country

12

9

8

17

13

10

1

3

Education/ poor education/ access to education

7

5

6

5

3

3

11

4

Ethics/ moral/ religious/ family decline/ dishonesty/ lack of integrity

7

6

6

8

4

6

9

5

National security

6

8

4

6

9

8

*

6

Poor healthcare/ hospitals/ high cost of healthcare

6

3

3

2

2

1

5

7

Poverty/ hunger/ homelessness

4

3

3

4

2

2

5

8

Dissatisfaction with government/ Congress/ politician/ candidates/ poor leadership/ corruption

4

3

4

4

3

1

6

9

Drugs

3

2

2

1

1

*

4

10

International issues/ problems

2

2

*

2

2

3

3

11

Environment/ pollution

2

*

1

1

1

1

2

12

Immigration/ illegal aliens

2

2

2

2

3

2

5

13

Children's behavior/ way they are raised

2

1

1

2

*

*

2

14

Crime/ violence

1

2

2

1

1

1

7

15

Care for the elderly

1

1

1

*

*

*

1

16

Judicial system/ courts/ laws

1

*

*

*

1

*

2

17

Race relations/ racism

1

2

1

2

1

2

2

18

Welfare

1

1

1

*

--

1

1

19

Lack of respect for each other

1

1

1

1

*

1

1

20

Medicare/ Social Security issues

1

2

*

1

*

1

5

21

Lack of energy sources; the energy crisis

1

1

*

*

*

*

1

22

Lack of money

*

--

2

1

1

--

*

23

Abortion

*

*

*

*

*

--

*

24

The media

*

1

1

1

1

1

1

25

Foreign aid/ focus overseas

*

1

1

1

1

*

*

26

Child abuse

*

*

*

*

--

--

*

27

Unifying the country

*

*

3

1

2

1

*

28

School shootings/ school violence

*

--

--

*

--

*

*

29

Overpopulation

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

 

Lack of military defense

--

1

*

1

*

*

1

 

AIDS

--

*

--

*

--

--

*

 

Guns/ gun control

--

*

*

*

*

*

1

 

Losing personal freedoms because of war

--

--

--

--

--

6

--

 

Other non-economic

2

4

5

6

3

6

3

                 
 

No opinion

4

4

3

3

4

5

4

 

Total

122%

130%

109%

128%

116%

108%

125%

                 

Total adds to more than 100% due to multiple responses

*Less than 0.5%

Most Important Problem: 1939-2002 (Based on responses in the spring of each year)

     

Date

Problem

Mentioning

%

2002 Mar

Economy

28

2001 Mar

Economy

20

2000 Mar

Education

16

1999 May

Crime/Violence

24

1998 Apr

Crime/Violence

20

1997 Jan

Economy

24

1996 May

Economy

31

1995 Jan

Economy and Crime/Violence (tie)

27

1994 Jan

Crime/Violence

49

1993 Jan

Economy

59

1992 May

Economy

66

1991 Mar

Economy

70

1990 Apr

Drugs

30

1989 May

Drugs

27

1987 Apr

Economy

29

1986 Jan

International Issues/Foreign Aid and Economy (tie)

30

1985 May

Economy

50

1984 Feb

Economy

64

1983 Apr

Economy (unemployment 53)

93

1982 Jan

Economy (inflation 49)

84

1981 May

Economy

24

1980 Mar

Economy (inflation 75)

81

1979 Feb

Economy (inflation 62)

69

1978 Apr

Economy (inflation 55)

74

1977 Mar

Economy (inflation 54)

95

1976 Apr

Economy (unemployment 24, inflation 38)

62

1975 Mar

Economy (inflation 60)

81

1974 Jan

Environment

46

1973 Feb

Economy (unemployment 10, inflation 23)

33

1972 Apr

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

35

1971 Feb

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

22

1970 Jan

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

32

1969 Jan

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

47

1968 Feb

Ethics/Moral Decline and Crime/Violence (tie)

13

1967 Jan

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

62

1966 Aug

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

69

1965 Feb

Vietnam/War/Peace/Terrorism

42

1964 Mar

Racism

34

1963 Sep

Racism

52

1962 Apr

International Issues/Foreign Aid

32

1961 Feb

International Issues/Foreign Aid

36

1960 Feb

War/Peace/Terrorism

23

1958 Jul

International Issues/Foreign Aid

46

1957 Aug

International Issues/Foreign Aid and Economy (tie)

22

1956 Sep

War/Peace/Terrorism and Racism (tie)

21

1954 Mar

Economy

37

1952 Jun

War/Peace/Terrorism

55

1951 Sep

War/Peace/Terrorism

56

1950 Mar

International Issues/Foreign Aid

39

1949 Jun

Economy

40

1948 Mar

War/Peace/Terrorism

39

1947 Jan

Economy

55

1946 Feb-Mar

Economy (unemployment 58)

73

1945 Mar

Economy (unemployment 30)

30

1939 Apr

Economy (unemployment 46)

48

Note: These percentages to some degree reflect differences in coding procedures used over the years (i.e., which specific mentions by respondents should be considered "economic") and therefore should be used as general estimates only.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,006 adults, 18 years and older, conducted March 4-7, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects 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.

Gallup

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