Public Opinion

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: January 2019

By Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Ryan Pougiales, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, February 8, 2019, 3:10 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 January 2019. 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 Institutions to Protect U.S. National Security Was Mixed in January

From Jan. 25 to Jan. 28, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

In January, confidence in the president to protect U.S. national security fell significantly, confidence in the military jumped up, while confidence in the federal courts, Congress and the intelligence community changed only moderately. On a scale of 1 (“no confidence”) to 5 (“high confidence”), the average score for each institution, from highest to lowest, was: 3.89 for the military, 3.17 for the intelligence community, 2.79 for the federal courts, 2.70 for the president and 2.45 for Congress. The sharp decline in confidence in the president coincided with a drop in President Trump’s approval in public polls that has been associated with the 35-day government shutdown.

Average confidence in the president on national security declined from 2.77 in our December polling to 2.70 in January. This drop came principally from respondents in the middle of our scale (scores of 2–4) shifting toward having less confidence in the president. In January, the share of respondents with middling confidence in the president dropped by more than three percentage points, while the share of those reporting “no confidence” increased by three percentage points to 42 percent. Consistent with the conventional wisdom that the president is retaining support with his base, the share of respondents with “high confidence” in the president held steady. Average confidence in Congress dropped moderately, from 2.49 to 2.45, while confidence in the courts dropped by a negligible amount to 2.79.

Average confidence in the military increased from 3.81 to 3.89 in January. While the military has consistently held the highest average confidence since we launched this project, this month’s uptick ended a two-month decline in confidence in the institution. This uptick may reflect a normalizing in confidence in the military as the abrupt resignation of James Mattis as secretary of defense in December fades from the public consciousness. Average confidence in the intelligence community is largely unchanged, inching up from 3.16 to 3.17.

Confidence in the Republican Party Continues to Fall, and Democrats Cut into Republicans’ Head-to-Head Advantage on National Security

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. Since the Democrats’ election victory in November, confidence in the Republican Party has decreased each month, while confidence in the Democratic Party has fluctuated. In January, average confidence in the Republican Party dropped from 2.74 to 2.70. This is down from an average confidence of 2.89 in October. Average confidence in the Democratic Party also dropped in January, but more moderately, from 2.63 to 2.61. 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 2.45.

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?”—narrowed, with Republicans’ advantage dropping from 12 to seven points. This continues a steady decline from last fall for confidence in Republicans. On this question, respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know.” When asked in this manner, 31 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, while 24 percent chose the Democratic Party; 23 percent chose “don’t know,” and 22 percent chose “neither.”

The Public Remains Uncertain About Intelligence Authorities

In late January 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 January was a 3.12 on our scale, an uptick from our results in December. As in all previous months that we 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 (43 percent) was a neutral 3 on our scale. And 73 percent of respondents chose one of the middle three options, not either 1 or 5. Once again, we note that these numbers have 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. During this period, the country has not experienced 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

In November 2017, 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 January, confidence in the president on these topics was 2.50 for Iran, 2.51 for North Korea and 2.62 for terrorism. All three scores fall below general confidence in the president on national security, which stands at 2.70. 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. However, one trend to watch is that confidence in the president on terrorism has declined (moderately) every month since September, when it peaked at 2.77, while confidence on Iran and North Korea has fluctuated.

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Remains Low

As we have since October 2017, we once again asked the public about its level of confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “fairness and objectivity” at the end of January. The average score was a 2.84 on our scale, which is consistent with December’s results that showed an average confidence of 2.83. This result, although not unprecedented in this data series, is below the average confidence in Mueller measured during the summer and fall of 2018.

This month’s survey went into the field on the same day that Roger Stone, a longtime associate of President Trump, was indicted on seven felony counts by Mueller. Thus it appears that Stone’s indictment, in contrast to past indictments and pleas, had little positive impact on perceptions of the Mueller investigation.

Confidence in Ongoing Military Operations Ticks Down While Confidence in the Military Jumps Up

While the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we ask about (a 3.89 on our scale), confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.87 and 2.76, respectively. These are decreases from our polling in December, a stretch of time that featured an uptick in confidence in the military generally. These inconsistent public opinion trajectories are taking place in the context of President Trump’s announced withdrawal of forces from both conflicts—a move seen by many in the foreign policy community as a rash decision.

Methodology

From Jan. 25 to Jan. 28, 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. A follow-up paper from Katrina Sostek showed Google Surveys’ accuracy versus benchmark questions to be comparable to other online survey platforms, with some differences noted based on weighting schemes. Benjamin Wittes and Emma Kohse also discussed criticisms and advantages of the Google Surveys methodology at some length in this paper.