Politics & National Security

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: November 2017

By Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, December 7, 2017, 1:04 PM

In July we began a polling project to measure public confidence in government institutions on national security matters on an ongoing basis. Last month, we expanded significantly the scope and range and coverage of that project. This post provides our latest data for the month of November, including perceptions of the two major political parties’ handling of national security and public perceptions of electronic surveillance issues. We will have a subsequent post that addresses the public’s seemingly volatile opinion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “objectivity and fairness” in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, which we first observed in polling before and after the indictments last month.

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

In the last week of November 2017, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

The results for November are largely consistent with our polling from previous months. The military remains the most trusted institution to protect national security, followed by the intelligence community, the federal courts, the President, and the Congress. The intelligence community and the military are the only institutions in which the public has net positive confidence to protect U.S. national security. On a scale of 1 (“No confidence”) to 5 (“High confidence”), the average score for the intelligence community is 3.04 and for the military is a whopping 3.78. Support for the military is so strong that the public is more than five times as likely to report having high confidence in the military (37 percent) as to report having no confidence in the military (7 percent).

Confidence in the military remains remarkably high despite the fact that the public has low confidence in ongoing military operations. Specifically, for the second straight month we asked respondents two questions about military operations:

The public’s average confidence in Afghanistan operations was 2.89 and for Iraq and Syria it was 2.71, indicating that the public is more likely than not to have low confidence in the most significant ongoing U.S. military operations. While the public holds a higher level of confidence in these operations than in Congress or the President, confidence in these operations is nearly a full point on average below confidence in the military as a whole.

A similar pattern is evident for the President, in which public confidence in his handling of specific national security issues is markedly lower than the public’s overall confidence in him. In the President’s case, unlike in the military’s, that general confidence is already low. For the second straight month, we asked three questions about the President’s handling of key national security issues, namely:

Confidence in the President’s handling of each of these issues was well below confidence in the President in general to handle national security. That general figure is 2.68. Conversely, average confidence in the President’s handling of Iran is only 2.47, and confidence in his handling of North Korea is 2.42, and confidence in his handling of terrorist threats measures in at 2.58. Moreover, the plurality response for each question was overwhelmingly “no confidence.” In fact, a near majority (47.5 percent) of respondents report having “no confidence” in the President’s ability to handle North Korea.

Confidence in the Political Parties to Protect U.S. National Security Remains Low

As we have since August, this month we asked respondents their opinion of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party when it comes to protecting U.S. national security. The Republican Party fares slightly better than the Democratic Party—average confidence scores of 2.71 and 2.62, respectively—as it has in every month we’ve asked this question. The parties’ confidence levels have remained fairly constant since August, and are greater than Congress’s level of 2.5 in November.

In addition to those core party preference questions, we once again asked a separate question about “which political party do you think will do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?” While the Republican Party is preferred by 27.8 percent of respondents to the 22.2 percent that prefer the Democratic Party, half of the respondents (49.9 percent) say they prefer “Neither” party or they “Don’t Know,” indicating again that neither party is well liked when it comes to national security.

The Public Still Doesn’t Know or Care Much About Electronic Surveillance Issues

Last month, we reported that the public appears disengaged with the electronic surveillance debate. While other surveys have suggested greater public engagement, in our results respondents had neutral opinions about the collection authorities of various government agencies, and they were overwhelmingly unsure what to think about the NSA and FBI spying on overseas targets without a warrant. This month we found nearly identical results, asking this same battery of questions, namely:

Just like last month, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents said they “Don’t Know/Have No Opinion” about the FBI and NSA spying overseas without warrants. Of those with opinions, most aren’t strong (the plurality response to both follow-up questions about NSA and FBI collection authorities is a neutral 3). This same pattern of indeterminate opinions is evident for the questions about privacy protections and the power of the intelligence community. Specifically, a strong plurality have neutral opinions about both American law protecting privacy (45 percent) and the authority of intelligence agencies (42 percent).


From Nov. 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 over 18 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