May 16, 2006

Public Worried about Iran but Wary of Military Action

Big Oil and Bush Blamed for High Gas Prices

Summary of Findings

Most Americans believe that Iran wants to possess nuclear technology in order to develop nuclear weapons, not energy. But there is broad public opposition to launching U.S. air strikes against military targets in Iran, with multilateral sanctions by far the preferred option approach for dealing with the situation.

More than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) have heard at least something about Iran’s nuclear program. And of those, an overwhelming majority (71%) says Iran wants nuclear technology to develop nuclear weapons. There also continues to be greater concern that we will wait too long, rather than act too quickly, in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program (by 53% to 34%).

Yet the public overwhelmingly wants the United Nations, not the United States, to take the lead in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. By greater than three-to-one (72%-21%), more Americans favor the U.N. playing the lead role on this issue.

And Americans show a decided preference for non-military approaches in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Nearly two-thirds (64%) favor the U.N. and other leading nations imposing tough economic sanctions on Iran. The public is evenly divided over the idea of providing Iran with nuclear energy technology if they agree to terminate their nuclear program. More aggressive steps for dealing with Iran ­ supporting opposition groups in an effort to overthrow the government, or U.S. attacks on military targets in Iran ­ draw less support.

Far more Republicans than Democrats or independents favor bombing military targets in Iran as a way to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear technology. But even among Republicans, fewer than half (46%) are in favor of air strikes; far more Republicans (79%) favor the U.N. and other leading nations imposing tough economic sanctions on Iran.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 2-14 among 1,001 adults, finds wide partisan differences over possible approaches for dealing with Iran. The notable exception is the idea of giving Iran nuclear energy technology in return for it giving up its nuclear program; that step is favored by 52% of independents, 45% of Democrats, and 44% of Republicans.

Growing Problems: Energy, Government, Immigration

The survey finds increasing public concern over gas prices. Currently, 14% volunteer gas and energy costs as the most important problem facing the country, nearly triple the percentage saying that in March (5%). Energy costs now rival the war in Iraq (18%) among the public’s concerns.

A growing number of Americans now view the government itself, or President Bush’s performance, as the biggest problem facing the country; 13% cite this today, up from 5% in January. In addition, the percentage of Americans who volunteer immigration as the biggest problem confronting the country has approximately doubled since March ­ from 4% to 10% ­ reflecting the rising national profile of that issue.

Republicans in particular view immigration as a major concern. More Republicans (19%) cite immigration as the most important national problem than cite any other issue; energy and gas prices are next, at 14%. Independents and Democrats mention the war most frequently (22% each); just 9% of independents and 6% of Democrats cite immigration as the country’s most important problem.

Gas Prices: Big Oil & Bush Blamed

The public continues to hold oil companies responsible for high gas prices (31%), but President Bush also gets much of the blame. A quarter of Americans volunteer that the president or his administration are most to blame for high gas prices. That compares with 3% who cite Congress and 4% who volunteer the government more generally.

Roughly four-in-ten Democrats (41%) point to Bush as being most to blame for rising gas prices, compared with 21% of independents and 11% of Republicans. In this regard, the president is far more accountable for gas prices than is Congress even within his own partisan base (just 4% of Republicans blame Congress.)

One-in-ten Americans cite foreign oil producers and OPEC, and 2% say increasing global demand, primarily from China and India, is the main cause of rising gas prices. Just 5% blame American citizens for consuming too much energy. The public’s evaluation of who is responsible is largely the same as last September, with one exception. At that time, 9% blamed the weather, predominantly Hurricane Katrina, compared with just 1% today.

Think Long-Term on Energy

Three-quarters of Americans think the president and Congress should take steps to deal with gas prices, while just 19% are of the view that there is not much these elected officials can do about the problem. When asked whether the government’s focus should be on controlling rising gas prices and energy shortages or trying to find new long term energy supply solutions, the public chooses the latter by a 61% to 24% margin. This is more public emphasis on seeking long-term solutions than was the case in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last September (52% finding long-term supplies vs. 36% controlling current problems).

The growing focus on solving the long-term energy problem is most notable among younger Americans and Republicans. Fully 71% of Republicans today say the president and Congress should emphasize seeking new energy supplies, up from 54% last September. Democrats remain considerably more divided over whether the priority should be current prices and shortages or long-term solutions. Younger Americans are also increasingly of the view that the government should be seeking long term energy solutions ­ 64% of 18-to-29 year olds take this view today, up from 48% last September.

Drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska remains a divisive issue with the public; roughly as many favor (46%) as oppose (44%) this idea. Support for drilling in ANWR rose somewhat following Hurricane Katrina, and then receded by January of this year. It has not changed substantially in the months since. There continues to be a partisan divide over drilling in ANWR. Republicans favor the idea by more than two-to-one (65% to 29%). Half of Democrats oppose the proposal while 37% are in favor, and the balance of opinion among independents mirrors the Democrats (50% oppose and 40% favor.)

Gas Prices Top News Story

More than two-thirds of Americans (69%) say they are following news about the high price of gasoline these days very closely, as high as in the months following Hurricane Katrina last fall. The issue of immigration (44%) and the situation in Iraq (42%) also attracted close attention from a sizeable minority. Attention to news from Iraq has remained relatively steady for over a year now (dipping significantly below 40% only in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina).

Attention to immigration is up slightly from April, from 39% then to 44% now. Growing interest is most notable in the South and West, where 48% and 53% of residents are paying very close attention to immigration news coverage. By comparison, 34% of Northeast residents, and 39% of Midwesterners are following as closely, with little change over the past month.

Just 16% of Americans report very closely following news about Duke University lacrosse team members being accused of sexual assault ­ fully a quarter say they did not follow this story closely at all. And the same percentage (16%) say they have been tracking news about ethnic violence in the Darfur region of Sudan very closely, while 33% say they have not followed this issue closely at all. African Americans are the only group that reports significant attention to news from Darfur (35% are following very closely).