January 11, 2006

Americans Taking Abramoff, Alito and Domestic Spying in Stride

Democrats Hold Huge Issue Advantage

Summary of Findings

The public has been hardly stirred by the flurry of major Washington news in the early days of 2006. Jack Abramoff’s admission that he bribed members of Congress has sparked little interest, with just 18% paying very close attention to news reports on the disgraced Washington lobbyist. An overwhelming majority of Americans (81%) say that lobbyists bribing lawmakers is common behavior in Congress, compared with just 11% who see it as isolated incidents.

In turn, there has been little political fallout from the disclosures. Ratings for Republican and Democratic congressional leaders remain low, and neither party has gained or lost ground as being better able to manage the federal government or to govern honestly and ethically.

Reports about President Bush authorizing wiretaps of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists has drawn far more attention than the Abramoff case. But there is not an outcry or even consensus opinion about the government’s monitoring, without court permission, the phone and email communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties; 48% feel this is generally right while about the same number (47%) think it is generally wrong. Public attitudes on this issue are highly partisan, with 69% of Republicans saying the government actions are generally right and nearly as many Democrats (62%) saying they are generally wrong.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 4-8 among 1,503 adults, finds that the public paid scant attention to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court in the days leading up to Senate confirmation hearings on Alito. Just 14% followed reports on the nomination very closely; by comparison, more than triple that number (47%) tracked the recent news of the deaths of 12 miners in West Virginia very closely. On balance, more Americans support Alito’s confirmation than oppose it (by 33% to 19%), though nearly half (48%) decline to offer an opinion.

The poll shows that, as with views of congressional leaders, Washington’s controversies have not had an impact on opinions of the president. Bush’s approval rating has not changed since December (38% approve/54% disapprove). However, the Democratic Party holds a sizable advantage over the GOP as the party better able to handle the country’s most important problem. Fully 41% believe the Democratic Party can do a better job of handling the nation’s top problem, compared with 27% who say the Republican Party. This represents a major shift from a year ago, when the public split about evenly on which party could better address the most important national problem.

The war in Iraq is viewed as the single most important national problem, though somewhat fewer point to the war than did so a year ago (23% vs. 32% in January 2005). More broadly, about four-in-ten (37%) cite a foreign policy or security concern as the nation’s most important problem ­ either the war, terrorism, or another foreign policy issue. That compares with 26% who mention an economic problem, including unemployment and energy prices.

The Democratic Party leads on every specific problem mentioned, with the lone exception of security and terrorism, and in most cases its advantage has grown significantly compared with a year ago. Half of those who cite the war in Iraq say the Democratic Party is better able to handle that problem while 31% cite the GOP; a year ago, the Democratic Party held a slight five-point edge on the war in Iraq.

Public opinion toward the war itself has remained fairly stable over the past few months, in spite of last month’s elections and the ongoing violence in Iraq. The public is evenly split over the decision to go to war, and divided as well over whether to withdraw U.S. forces or keep them in Iraq until the country is stabilized. As was the case in December, solid majorities believe the U.S. is making progress in several areas, including establishing democracy in Iraq, though fewer than half (46%) think the U.S. is making progress in defeating the insurgents militarily.

No Rise in Civil Liberties Concerns

The highly-publicized revelations of government eavesdropping have not altered the balance of public opinion with respect to the tradeoff between combating terrorism and protecting civil liberties. Just one-in-three say their bigger concern about the government’s anti-terrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties. A 46% plurality is more concerned that the government has not gone far enough to adequately protect the country. These views are comparable to measures taken in 2004 and 2005.

Democrats express far more concern about civil liberties than do Republicans, but even Democrats are divided on how to balance security and civil liberties with 42% worrying that the government has gone too far in restricting freedoms, and 40% concerned that they have not gone far enough to protect the country from future attacks. Republicans, by 64% to 16%, say the government has not gone far enough. Among both partisans and independents, views have not changed much since 2004.

Opposed to Government Snooping

As has been the case since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of the government monitoring their phone calls, emails and credit card purchases. By about three-to-one (73%-24%) the public opposes allowing government surveillance of their personal phone calls and emails. This measure has changed very little since September 2001, just after the attacks, when 70% opposed government monitoring of private communications.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans were somewhat more accepting of the government monitoring their credit card purchases, but this sentiment soon receded. Currently, 68% oppose allowing the government to scrutinize their credit card records, a slight increase from August 2002 (63%).

While the public overwhelmingly supports individual privacy in these areas, there is a willingness to see the government go further in other areas. Specifically, 56% favor requiring that all citizens carry a national identity card at all times, and about the same number favor allowing airport personnel to do extra checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent. On these issues, too, public views are unchanged from the summer of 2002.

Growing Party Divisions

In August 2002, there was little party division over the issue of government monitoring of personal telephone calls and emails. Both Republicans and Democrats opposed the idea by similar margins. In fact, if anything, Republicans were less likely to see this kind of surveillance of American citizens as justifiable.

However, in the wake of the news that President Bush has authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor Americans suspected of having terrorist ties the issue has become more divisive. Today, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats (37% vs. 18%) to say they favor allowing the government to monitor their telephone and email communications. This marks a 15-point increase in support among Republicans, and a nine-point drop among Democrats since 2002.

Eavesdropping Without a Warrant

Regarding the current domestic spying controversy, the public divides evenly over the question of the government monitoring telephone and email communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first obtaining permission from the courts. Aside from the partisan gap in at
titudes on this issue, there also are wide racial and age differences.

Nearly twice as many whites as African Americans say government monitoring of communications of those suspected of having terrorist ties is generally right (52% vs. 27%). A solid majority of those ages 18-29 (56%) say the policy is generally wrong, while most of those ages 65 and older feel it is generally right (58%).

The Patriot Act

The public is also divided in its view of the Patriot Act, with 39% saying it is a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists and 38% saying it goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties. Nearly a quarter have no view one way or the other. People who have been following news about the renewal of the Patriot Act in Congress are far more likely to take a position, but remain evenly divided with 48% saying it is a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism and 46% saying it poses a threat to civil liberties.

Terror Threats

Nearly four-in-ten Americans (39%) believe the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack in the U.S. is less today than it was at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, while just 17% say it is greater (another 39% say the threat is the same today as then). This represents a significant improvement in public perceptions from this past summer, when just as many said the country is in greater danger today (28%) as said it is safer (29%). But public evaluations of the government’s handling terrorism remains lukewarm. Just 16% thing the government is doing “very well” in reducing the threat of terrorism, while half say “fairly well.”

Low Ratings for Both Party’s Leaders

Congressional leaders of both parties receive virtually the same low approval ratings. Only about a third of the public (34%) has a positive view of the job performance of Democratic leaders while about the same number (33%) approves of the way GOP leaders are doing their jobs. These opinions reflect little change since fall, although in both cases they represent a slight decline from last spring.

Republicans approve of the job performance of GOP leaders by roughly two-to-one (59%-29%). Democrats have somewhat less positive views of the job of their party’s congressional leaders; 52% approve, while 33% disapprove. Independents give about the same low ratings for leaders in both parties (27% approval for Republicans, 30% for Democrats).

Similarly, there has been little change recently in views of which party is more honest and ethical, and which is better able to manage the federal government well. Currently, 37% believe the phrase “governs in an honest and ethical way” better describes the Democratic Party; 30% say it better describes the GOP. The Democratic Party also holds a modest advantage (40%-34%) in perceptions of which party is able to manage the federal government well.

Opinions of how the two parties rate on these dimensions remain overwhelmingly partisan. However, by a fairly sizable margin (35%-21%) independents see the Democratic Party, rather than the Republican Party, as governing in an honest and ethical way; in October, independents selected the Democratic Party by a somewhat smaller margin (33%-26%).

Bribery Seen as Common

By more than seven-to-one (81%-11%), Americans believe that the recent reports of lobbyists bribing members of Congress represent common behavior in Congress rather than isolated instances of corruption. This opinion is widely shared, with overwhelming majorities in all groups saying bribery in Congress is commonplace. Republicans are somewhat less likely than Democrats and independents to view bribery as widespread; still, 77% of conservative Republicans, and 74% of moderate and liberal Republicans, say this kind of behavior is common in Congress.

Iraq War Continues to Divide

Perceptions and attitudes about the war in Iraq have been relatively unchanged for several months, with the public evenly divided on several key questions about the U.S. military action there. A small majority remains optimistic about the prospects for eventual success in Iraq, and a plurality believes the recent Iraqi elections will lead to a more stable situation in the country.

Public attention to news about the war remains high, with 40% saying they are following news reports on Iraq very closely and another 40% following fairly closely ­ about the same as over the past 18 months. Democrats and Republicans continue to be equally interested in news about the war.

Overall, the public splits on the decision to go to war: 45% say it was the right decision, while 47% say it was the wrong decision. These numbers have varied no more than five points over the past year and are virtually unchanged from a poll taken one month ago, prior to the parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Similarly, the public divides evenly on the question of what to do now: 48% say the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible, while the same number say it should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. As was the case last month, most of those who favor bringing troops home do not support immediate withdrawal. Instead, they prefer a gradual pullout over the next year or two (32% overall), while 14% favor removing all troops immediately. At the same time, most people who support keeping troops in Iraq also oppose the setting of a timetable for withdrawal ­ 33% of the public overall ­ but 10% believe a timetable should be set.

The public is also split on the question of the war’s impact on the larger war on terrorism, though slightly more say it’s helped that effort (44%) than say it’s hurt (38%). The number who believe that the conflict in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism dropped six points over the past month (it was 44% in December).

Growing Age and Gender Gaps on the War

Although attitudes about the war have been relatively fixed for the past several months, somewhat more people today than one year ago believe that the U.S. should withdraw troops as soon as possible. Over this period, opinions on this question have become somewhat more polarized along gender and generational lines.

Overall, 48% now favor withdrawal, compared with 41% in January 2005. But the increase in support for pulling out was greater among women (up 10 points) than among men (up four points). Similarly, younger respondents are 11 percentage points more likely to favor withdrawal than they were a year ago; the oldest group of respondents (age 65 and older) are virtually unchanged (45% now, 44% last year).

Both Republicans and Democrats have shifted on this question, but among Republicans the change has been greater among those who describe themselves as moderate or liberal than among conservative Republicans. One-third (34%) of moderate and liberal Republicans today favor withdrawal, up from 22% in January 2005; by contrast, growth in support for withdrawal among conservative Republicans was smaller (up 6 points, from 12% to 18%).

Many See Progress on Key Goals

Americans continue to see progress being achieved in Iraq in several key areas. Nearly two-thirds (65%) believe progress is being made in training Iraqi forces so they can replace U.S. troops. Roughly the same number (62%) think progress is being made in the larger goal of establishing a democracy in Iraq; just 26% say we are losing ground in that effort. Both measures show a slight (four percentage point) improvement over the past month.

The public is also generally positive about the U.S. effort to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure of roads, power plants, and other services: 59% see progress on that front. And a small majority (52%) says the U.S. is making progress in preventing terrorists from using Iraq as a base for attacks against the U.S. and other allies.

The public is less sanguine about progress in defeating the insurgents (46% say we are making progress, 38% say we are losing ground), in preventing a civil war (34% progress, 48% losing ground), and reducing civilian casualties there (32% progress, 54% losing ground). On all three measures, there has been little change since December.

Iraqi Elections Produce Guarded Optimism

Last month’s Iraq elections were the third nationwide elections conducted in the country in the past year. The December parliamentary elections ­ while less visible to the U.S. public than the elections held in January 2005 ­ have produced a comparable reaction: a 43% plurality believes the elections will make the country more stable, while 42% expect no change and 8% think it will become less stable. As with most perceptions about the situation in Iraq, Republicans were far more positive than Democrats on the likely consequence of the elections ­ 68% of Republicans expect greater stability to result, compared with just 30% of Democrats.

Alito Nomination

Despite a steady stream of news about Samuel Alito’s background and record, public interest in his nomination fell decidedly over the holiday season. On the eve of Senate hearings this week, fully 36% of Americans said they were not following news about Alito’s nomination at all closely, up from 32% in December and 25% in November. Just 14% reported paying very close attention to Alito’s nomination, the lowest of all news items tested.

Among those paying attention to news about Alito, 52% favor his confirmation while 29% are opposed. Among those who are following not too closely or not at all closely, nearly two-thirds have no opinion one way or the other.

Coal Mine Deaths Top News Interest

Just under half of Americans say they followed news about the death of twelve miners in a West Virginia coal mine very closely ­ the highest level of attention paid to any story this past month. Another 33% say they followed this news story fairly closely, and fewer than one-in-five say they paid little or no attention. Attention to the mining disaster was high across the country and among all groups. Women followed somewhat more than did men (52% very closely vs 42%), and older Americans followed more closely than did younger people, though this age difference is true for most news stories.

Iraq remains a major focus of public attention. Four-in-ten say they have been following news about the current situation in Iraq very closely, which is on par with measures taken throughout 2005. When asked to volunteer the first news story that comes to mind when thinking about what’s been in the news lately, 31% cited the mining disaster, but 25% mentioned news about Iraq, an increase of six points since November.