Public Opinion

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: December 2018

By Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Ryan Pougiales, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, January 17, 2019, 3:22 PM

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 December 2018. It includes public perceptions of government institutions and of 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.

Confidence in All Institutions to Protect U.S. National Security Decreases Markedly

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

In December, confidence in institutions to protect U.S. national security fell for all five institutions analyzed in this polling project. On a scale of 1 (“No confidence”) to 5 (“High confidence”), the average score for each institution from highest to lowest was: 3.81 for the military, 3.16 for the intelligence community, 2.80 for the federal courts, 2.77 for the president and 2.49 for Congress. The decline in confidence for government institutions to protect U.S. national security may be in response to the government shutdown, which began on December 22, just three days before this poll began being administered.

While all institutions analyzed in this project saw a decline in confidence since our November polling, the biggest declines in support were for the courts (from 2.99 to 2.80) and Congress (from 2.64 to 2.49). The decline in support for Congress could be the result of several factors. While it fits with the theory that public trust in government institutions fell after the shutdown began, support for the president—who is, at the very least, just as responsible as Congress for the government shutdown—fell only nominally from 2.83 in November to 2.77 in December. Alternatively, the outcome of the 2018 election could have affected the confidence levels, as Republicans who previously had confidence in a Congress controlled by their party began to doubt a Congress that would be partially controlled by Democrats. While change in party control did not take effect until after the survey was concluded, the repeated language blaming Democrats for the shutdown, coupled with the negotiations between Democratic leaders and the president could have left some in the public with a mistaken impression that the party change had already occurred.

Both the military and the intelligence community saw sharper declines in confidence to protect national security than did the president. Confidence in the military on national security matters fell from 3.93 in November to 3.81 in December, and confidence in the intelligence community fell from 3.26 in November to 3.16 in December. This survey was in the field after the contentious resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis over sharp disagreements with the president’s abrupt decision to withdraw from Syria and while the president made a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. While the military and intelligence community saw declines in this period, they remain, by far, the most trusted institutions to protect U.S. national security.

 

Confidence in the Republican Party Falls Slightly While Confidence in the Democratic Party Increases Slightly

In October, just before the 2018 elections, we saw confidence in both political parties to protect national security increase noticeably, to what were all-time highs in the history of this polling project. In November, those gains in party support were completely erased. In December, that trend continued for the Republican Party whose average confidence on national security matters dropped marginally to 2.74, from 2.79 in November. On the other hand, confidence in the Democratic Party increased slightly from 2.58 in November to 2.63 in December. The public has more confidence in both parties to protect national security than it does in Congress as a whole, which has an average confidence score of 2.49. Again, these changes come in the wake of what was viewed as a consequential election, with the party control of the House of Representatives shifting as a result.

The margin for our second question on partisanship and national security—“Which of the parties will do a better job protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?”—held steady this month, with Republicans retaining an eleven point advantage over Democrats. On this question, where respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know,” Republicans retained a healthy advantage this month as they have in all previous months we’ve asked this question. When asked in this manner, 34 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, while 23 percent chose the Democratic Party; 23 percent chose “don’t know,” and 20 percent chose “neither.”

The Public Remains Uncertain About Intelligence Authorities

In late December 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?” The average response in December was a 3.05 on our scale, effectively unchanged from our results in November. 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, far and away the most common response to this question (44 percent) is a neutral 3 on our scale. And 72 percent of respondents chose one of the middle three options, not either 1 or 5. Once again, we note that this number has been remarkably stable in the period in which we have asked this question, ranging from a low of 3.03 to a high of 3.18 seemingly randomly. This period has been one in which the country has not experienced either notable intelligence failures, terrorist attacks or intelligence scandals. The stability of these numbers during such a period offers a good baseline against which to measure any changes if and when the political process suddenly lurches to consider either expanding or contracting intelligence authorities.

Low, but Stable, Confidence 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 December, confidence in the president on these topics remains middling on our scale—at 2.48 for Iran, 2.50 for North Korea and 2.64 for terrorism. All three scores fall below general confidence in the president on national security, which stands at 2.77. While these numbers have tended to move together, this month’s support for the president’s handling of Iran and terrorism remained relatively stagnant, as support for the president’s handling of North Korea increased slightly. But all three of these results are well within the bounds we’ve seen for these questions. In fact, as the chart below shows, confidence in the president on these key national security issues has changed little since we began asking these questions in November 2017.

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Drops Appreciably

As we have since October 2017, we once again asked the public about its level of confidence in Robert Mueller’s “fairness and objectivity” at the end of December; the average score was a 2.83 on our scale, a significant drop from the average level of confidence in Mueller in November (2.93). In fact, 2.83 is the lowest average level of confidence in Mueller that we’ve seen since last June.

Confidence in the Mueller investigation has tended to spike when the special counsel indicts people or reaches plea agreements. Yet, despite considerable activity in December related to Mueller’s investigation--including Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen being sentenced to three years in prison and accusations that Paul Manafort lied to Mueller’s team during their investigation—public confidence in Mueller dropped. Why this occurred isn’t clear, but it may be at least partially the result of the public responding to Trump’s repeated attacks on the Special Counsel’s investigation.

Confidence in Ongoing Military Operations Increases After Trump’s Planned Withdrawals

While the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we ask about (a 3.81 on our scale), confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.92 and 2.79, respectively. These are both increases from our November polling. Notably, respondents to our survey began answering these questions on December 25, just days after President Trump announced U.S. forces would be withdrawing from both conflicts. Thus, it’s noteworthy to see increases in support for both conflicts, particularly for Iraq/Syria, which saw a .11 increase in average confidence since November. This increased confidence might be seen as public support for what was seen among the foreign policy community as a rash decision by Trump to withdraw from these conflicts.

Methodology

From December 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.