Politics & National Security

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: August 2018

By Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Ryan Pougiales, Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, September 12, 2018, 10:55 AM

In July 2017, we began a polling project to measure public confidence in government institutions on national security matters on an ongoing basis. This post provides our data for the month of August 2018. It includes perceptions about government institutions and about the two major political parties’ handling of national security; about the public’s comfort with intelligence authorities; about the president’s handling of key national security issues; about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; and about ongoing military operations.

As the midterm election cycle is solidly underway and we have a full year’s worth of data, we have included in this post several observations about the electoral implications for both parties of the data we have reported over the past year.

Confidence in Institutions to Protect U.S. National Security Remains Stable

From Aug. 25-27, 2018, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

In August, for the second straight month, public confidence in the president on national security matters dropped perceptibly. The presidency was the only institution in which support declined since our previous month’s polling, in late July. On a scale of 1 (“No confidence”) to 5 (“High confidence”), the average score for each institution from highest to lowest was: 3.94 for the military, 3.25 for the intelligence community, 2.95 for federal courts, 2.71 for the president and 2.62 for Congress.

Confidence in President Trump on national security is down from 2.75 in July. Additionally, a large plurality, 41 percent, reported “no confidence” in Trump. This may reflect continued fallout from public outrage over his performance at the Helsinki summit in July with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the conflict with NATO allies before that meeting. It may also reflect public reactions to Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, being found guilty of several crimes and Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleading guilty to a number of crimes just days before our poll ran. Further, while this poll was in the field, there was public controversy over the president’s display of respect (or lack thereof) for the passing of Sen. John McCain, viewed by many as a war hero. In a reversal from last month, confidence in the president fell among seniors rather than young people; average confidence dropped from 2.94 to 2.83 among people over 55, while it was unchanged at 2.55 with those under 35. The broad pattern of confidence in the president on national security matters seems to track his support levels in other polls over time. The president’s low point in our polling came at the beginning of our surveys, when he measured in at 2.58 in July 2017. At that time, his approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average of his approval ratings was in the high thirties. The president’s confidence rating began creeping up, however, over the following months, as did his more general approval rating. It reached a high of 2.83 in June 2018—by which time his average approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average stood in the low forties. Both appear to be falling now. This is not good news for Republicans heading into the midterms.

The continued drop in confidence for the president is particularly noteworthy this month because public confidence rose in every other institution we asked about, save the military (which held steady at a remarkably high 3.94 on our scale). Confidence in the courts increased to 2.95, which is a record high over the 13 months that we’ve asked this question. Similarly, confidence in Congress rose dramatically in August, to 2.62, which is also a record high since we began asking this question in July 2017. Continuing the trend, confidence in the intelligence community soared to a record high of 3.25 on our scale. In short, if there is a conflict between Trump and the “Deep State,” the public seems to be trending in favor of the latter precisely at a time when citizens are being asked, in the context of the midterms, to consider the president’s relationship with other branches of government and institutions within his own branch responsible for national security.

The Republican Party’s Advantage on National Security Grows

But our polling this month is not all bad news for Republicans on national security matters. We ask two separate questions to gauge the public’s party preferences on national security. The results of both questions in August indicate that the Republican Party’s advantage on national security is getting larger—notwithstanding the president and notwithstanding the apparently growing Democratic advantage in generic-ballot polling.

The first question concerned confidence in the parties to handle national security matters generically. On that question, in August, average confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to protect U.S. national security stood at 2.73, and average confidence in the Democratic Party’s ability stood at 2.63. Both parties are perceived more favorably than is Congress as a whole, which has an average confidence score of 2.62. While this reflects a nominal increase in support (two-tenths of a point) for the Democratic Party since we asked this question in late July, support for the Republican Party increased by a slightly larger amount (half a point), thus widening the gap slightly between the two parties. This reverses a trend we had seen in the previous two months of confidence in the Republican Party dropping and confidence in the Democratic Party rising. Again, as we were asking this question, media coverage of the passing of  John McCain was a reminder of the traditional support Republicans have had for the military. Note that notwithstanding the August numbers, the general gap is narrower than it has been at other times during the year. The broad message here is that the traditional Republican advantage on national security messaging is very sticky with the public and has not been deeply disrupted by Trump. Playing to traditional themes like support of the military and veterans appears to have a great deal of resonance for a lot of people in conditioning national security attitudes.

If the results of the first question are disheartening for Democrats and encouraging for Republicans, the results of our second question—Which of the parties will do a better job protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?—are even more so. On that question, the Republican advantage increases when respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know.” When asked in this manner, 34 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, while only 22 percent chose the Democratic Party; 25 percent chose “don’t know,” and 19 percent chose “neither.” This reflects a two-point decrease in support for the Democratic Party since July and a three-point increase in support for the Republican Party. This widens the gap between the two parties to 12 points, which is close to the record 14-point gap we observed in June. Note that this gap is driven almost entirely by men; Republicans lead by 25 points among men and just two points among women. Note also that, as with previous months, the Republican advantage disappears when we ask respondents who chose “don’t know” and “neither” a follow-up question that forces a choice between the two parties. In other words, the uncertain respondents are split between Democrats (51 percent) and Republicans (49 percent).

The bottom line, as the midterms approach, is that Democrats still trail Republicans substantially on the question of which party Americans trust to defend the nation. But those people without formed views on this question are split evenly between the two parties.

As previous Third Way research has shown, when this “security gap” is large it can diminish Democrats’ prospects in elections.

The Public Remains Uncertain About Intelligence Authorities

In late August we once again asked respondents, “How comfortable are you with the powers of the U.S. intelligence community? Do intelligence agencies in your view have not enough authority or do they have too much authority?” There was a slight increase in the average response since July (from 3.07 to 3.09 in August). As in all previous months that we’ve asked this question, respondents lean slightly toward the intelligence community having too much authority. However, also as in all previous months, by far and away the most common response to this question (43 percent) is a neutral 3 on our scale. And more than 70 percent of respondents chose one of the middle three options, not either 1 or 5.

Confidence Continues to Fall in the President’s Handling of Key National Security Issues

Last November, we began asking respondents how confident they were in the president’s ability to handle key national security issues, specifically with regard to Iran, North Korea and terrorism. In August, we once again found that confidence in the president on these topics remains low on our scale—at 2.52 for Iran, 2.51 for North Korea and 2.67 for terrorism. These numbers have tended to move together, reflecting an overall sense of confidence in the president’s handling of national security. But interestingly, confidence in the president’s handling of each of these issues is below the level of average confidence in the president’s handling of national security generally (2.71), and confidence in the president on each of these issues has fallen for the second straight month. What’s more, this marks the third straight month that public confidence in the president’s ability to handle Iran has fallen, following his announcement in May that the United States would leave the Iran nuclear deal. Revelations that North Korea has not made measurable progress toward denuclearization may also be undercutting early optimism following the president’s summit with Kim Jong Un. That said, as with the presidential confidence number overall, Trump’s ratings on the specific matters remain above their lowest recorded levels.

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Increases Nominally

As we have since October, we once again asked the public about its level of confidence in Robert Mueller’s “fairness and objectivity” at the end of August, and the average score was a 2.93 on our scale, a nominal increase (from 2.90) since July.

Confidence in the Mueller investigation has tended to spike when the special counsel indicts people or reaches plea agreements. This time, however, despite the first trial to result from the special counsel’s investigation, the prosecution of former Trump campaign chairman Manafort, concluding with convictions, there was little increase in support for Mueller. Similarly, the guilty plea of Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, that same day also appears to have had little impact on confidence in Mueller.

Confidence in Ongoing Military Operations Remains Well Below Overall Confidence in the Military

While the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we ask about (a 3.94 on our scale), confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.91 and 2.82, respectively. While confidence in both these conflicts increased from July to August, as the trend line indicates, public confidence in these military operations has wavered little since we began asking about these conflicts in November, a result that is perhaps explained by scant media attention toward these operations in recent months.

Methodology

From Aug. 25-27, we once again used Google Surveys, which is supporting this project with a large in-kind donation of access to its survey platform, to ask a variety of questions related to national security. Respondents are internet users age 18 and older who answer “surveywall” questions on websites that use Google Opinion Rewards for Publishers to access content. Surveys appear on a network of more than 1,500 sites, including USA Today and the Financial Times. For more information on Google Surveys’ methodology, including questions regarding sampling bias and inferred demographics, please see Google’s white paper on the topic. Benjamin Wittes and Emma Kohse also discussed criticisms and advantages of the Google Surveys methodology at some length in this paper.