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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio, President Obama, the United Nations, and the American Public

President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations on Tuesday about climate change and said, “...there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.” Academy Award nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio spoke eloquently Tuesday at the same venue about the need for the world to focus directly on climate changes, which he calls not hysteria, but fact. Both the president and DiCaprio were speaking at the UN Climate Summit 2014, whose website proclaims, “Climate change is not a far-off problem. It is happening now and is having very real consequences on people’s lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow.”

The fascinating and important aspect of this summit and the associated speeches -- from my perspective as a public opinion scientist -- is the overwhelming degree to which the American public appears not to consider climate change an urgent threat or problem or priority. In many ways over the last decade, the higher the volume about climate change is turned up, the less concerned the American public appears to get.

As one primary example, we just don’t see any sign that climate change is top-of-mind when Americans are asked to name the most important problems facing the United States. Check out our most recent September most important problem update, where 1% of all mentions in response to the most important problem question were about the environment in any way. 

Additionally, when we ask Americans about the importance of a list of issues directly, the environment is below average in terms of importance. It’s important to note that it’s above average in terms of how satisfied Americans are with how the problem is being addressed.

When we narrow our focus down to discussions of a list of environmental concerns more specifically, we find that global warming/climate change comes in dead last. Sixty percent of Americans say that pollution of drinking water is something they worry about “a great deal,” while only 34% say that about global warming and 35% about climate change. (The words “global warming” and “climate change” appear generally to make little difference in public opinion surveys, although there are some fascinating nuances explored here.)

You can also check this series of reports, which go over in some detail a variety of indicators that underscore the lack of urgency assigned climate change by the average American.

It’s very important not to lose sight of the fact that this has become a highly partisan issue. Exactly why that is the case has many answers, but the facts are that in recent years the gap between Republican and Democratic concern about climate change has widened and widened. Republicans are much less likely to view it as a problem than Democrats are. The issue has, thus, become bound up in the general partisan polarization that affects the American political landscape at this time. The more Democrats and liberals take on the cause, the higher the resistance may be from the other side.

Clearly the strategy employed by climate change activists over the past decade to increase the American public’s concern about the issue has not worked. It’s unlikely that the UN Climate Summit will make much difference in public opinion either, despite DiCaprio and President Obama’s best efforts.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Beyond the Election: Americans’ Priorities for Their Elected Representatives

Much of the focus of pollsters and public opinion experts this election season is on the question of who is going to win control of the House and the Senate. Who is going to win is important, but a more lasting concern is what the public thinks the House and the Senate should be doing once the election is over, the dust clears, and Congress gets back into session in January. The House and the Senate exist for one purpose, and that is to represent the people of the nation -- since all of the people of the nation can’t get together and make decisions on what they want their government to do on a daily basis. 

So, regardless of who wins in November, exactly what is it that the people of the country want their elected representatives to do? I would say that comes down to four domains.

1. The economy. This is central and the most important factor in Americans’ lives. There are substantial and very real differences in exactly what different segments of the U.S. population want the government to do, or not to do, relating to the economy.  But the bottom line is that focusing on the appropriate role of the government in terms of enhancing economic progress and in particular creating jobs is the No. 1 priority from the public’s perspective, based on everything we measure.  I would include in this domain the stewardship of economic entitlement programs, which are highly institutionalized at this point, and which Americans have come to depend on financially -- including in particular Social Security.  Economic concerns, taken as a whole, are overwhelmingly identified by the people of the nation as the most important problem facing the country.

2. Fixing government. “Physician, heal thyself,” comes from the book of Luke in the New Testament, and in this setting can be applied in a slightly variant form: “Congress, heal thyself.” Dysfunctional government is just below economic concerns in frequency of mentions when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the country, and the top-of-mind frequency with which Americans mention problems with government itself has increased steadily since January 2009. 

I needn’t at this point review all of the many different measures we are tracking that show the very low regard in which Americans hold their federal government and the legislative branch in particular. If interested, I would suggest you read this, and this, and this, and this carefully. This distrust, if not disdain, for government is a situation that has very substantial consequences for this country at this time. 

More than anything else, our data show that Americans are displeased with Congress because members lose sight of the overall goal of working together as a group. Instead, they are focusing on more specific elements of the representatives' or senators' egos, on their ability to be re-elected, on their campaign financial situations, and on the implications of any and all actions for the standing and future of social groupings of which the representative or senator may be a member -- namely political parties and ideological groups. Taken as a whole, Americans reject this view that their representatives should focus on enhancing their own careers and their party’s agenda. Americans indicate that the sacrifice of the personal or group principles should be undertaken in order to further the greater good. As one of our respondents said when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation in our Sept. 4-7 survey: “Government leaders on both sides of the aisle think of themselves first, their party second, and they never think about the American people.”

Members of Congress are well aware of the low esteem in which they are held, and typically reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance by responding that they personally are doing a good job, even while others in their body are not. This is an example of the focus on individuals that I mentioned earlier; the people would rather the representative take responsibility for the functioning of the body as a whole, rather than arguing that it is someone else’s fault and/or that the representative is well-liked by his or her particular constituents. If the body gets at 14% approval rating from the American people as a whole, then every member of that body has failed in the eyes of 86% of the public.

3. Social institution maintenance. All complex societies need what sociologists call “social institutions”-- organized sets of rules and procedures and systems that help maintain certain necessary and valuable social functions. The five such functions are usually listed as the economy, family, government, education, and religion. I think health can be added to that list. Americans, taken as a whole, are less interested in their representatives focusing on family and religion, although for segments of the population some family-related issues are keenly important. But Americans, taken as a whole, are interested in their elected representatives dealing with the other institutions. I’ve talked above about the economy and government. That leaves education and healthcare. The government is highly involved in both of these institutions.

The precise role that the federal government should play in education is debatable from the people’s perspective -- but that’s the point. The people would like government to be focused on what it should or should not be doing, or what it can do or what should be left to others to do, to enhance education both at the K-12 level and at the post-high school level. 

The federal government’s involvement in healthcare is not without controversy. The government is very much a part of the nation’s healthcare systems. Medicare and Medicaid are huge government healthcare programs that consume huge proportions of every federal tax dollar received. Most medical residents are supported by Medicare. Much medical research is supported by the federal government. And, most controversial of all, the federal government become substantially more involved in the nation’s healthcare with the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Overall, the public views healthcare as an important problem facing the country, and how the government handles all of its existing and potential responsibilities in this arena is of critical concern to Americans.

4. Dealing with external threats. A primary purpose of the government is to use its ability to combine the people’s tax monies to train and mount military, police, and intelligence forces in order to protect the people from external threats. This classic role of government includes defense against nations and entities that would or have threatened the country directly, and also includes dealing with those living outside the country who would like to come into the country as immigrants. This, in today’s world, is a highly complex function with the advent of non-statist groups who have as their avowed purpose the destruction of other nations and groups. This is an area in which the public generally reports being more satisfied than it is with other areas. The military in fact generates more confidence from the public than any other entity. The data suggest that this remains a key and critical area for government focus.

All in all, when we wake up on Nov. 5, no matter who wins control of the House and the Senate, these -- in broad strokes -- are the issues that Americans want their representatives to address when they return to Washington in January. At this point, Americans are not at all positive about how well their representatives have been handling these responsibilities. How likely that is to change with the newly elected House and with newly elected Senators remains to be seen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Obama’s Approval Edge Among Women Holds Generally Constant

Karen Tumulty’s interesting story on The Washington Post’s website Thursday highlighted the fact that President Barack Obama is losing the confidence of key parts of the coalition that elected him. The story reports the changes in Obama’s job approval within subgroups in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, fleshed out by details from follow-up interviews with participants in those polls, and also results from a series of focus groups with women in Little Rock and Des Moines conducted by a GOP and a Democratic pollster.

The thrust of the quantitative part of the article was straightforward. Obama has lost support among women compared with previous points in time, and also among young people and Hispanics. The article highlights, “the degree to which the president’s approval has slipped among key parts of the Obama coalition -- the women, youth, and Latino voters most responsible for putting him into office.”

As far as women are concerned, the article notes that Obama’s approval/disapproval ratio among women is nearing an all-time low in the poll. 

The article provides a good opportunity to look at a key issue in the analysis of a president’s support (or other similar measures) -- the value of relative comparisons. If a president’s overall approval rating has been rising or dropping significantly among the entire population, then we would hold out the expectation that his approval rating would also rise or drop concomitantly among each subgroup of the population. The question becomes one of -- in addition to looking at the absolute rise or drop in approval among a subgroup -- analyzing the relative change in approval among a subgroup compared with the overall change in approval.

By way of example, given the free fall in automobile sales in 2008 as the recession hit, we would expect that Ford Motor Co.’s auto sales would fall dramatically as well. The fact that Ford’s sales fell in 2008 in isolation wouldn’t be as interesting as the degree to which Ford’s sales fell relative to the drop among the industry as a whole. President George W. Bush’s job approval rating soared among women in September and October of 2001. That could seem remarkable, except that his approval rating also soared among every other subgroup in the population as a result of the rally effect following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Along these lines, The Washington Post article does provide a basis for making these types of comparisons. The story notes that Obama’s approval rating among women has fallen from 60% in January 2013 to 44% in the most recent poll. Although not mentioned explicitly in the article, Obama’s overall approval rating between these two polls is readily available, and the trends show that his overall approval rating over that period fell from 55% to 42%. Thus, and this is the important finding, his approval rating fell by 16 percentage points among women from January 2013 to September 2014 in the Post/ABC News poll, and fell by 13 points overall during that same time period. This allows one to make a very cautious conclusion that the president may be suffering slightly more among women (a drop of 16 points) than he is overall ( a drop of 13 points), but given the margin of error on the 500 or so women in each of the two polls, this conclusion must be treated with some caution.   

Our Gallup Daily tracking data allows us to use very large sample sizes to look at these comparative trends in more depth. On a long-term basis, this comparison -- similar to the Post polls -- doesn’t show a lot of change over time in Obama’s relative standing among women. 

Here is a graph of our Gallup data, based on 30,000 interviews a month in 2009 through 2012, and 15,000 interviews a month in 2013 and 2014. The graph shows Obama’s job approval rating overall and among women. 

And this graph below distills the gender gap into one line -- the net difference in approval, on a monthly basis, between women and the overall average during the entire Obama administration. 

Both of these graphs reflect the same data, in slightly different ways. Obama has, so far in his term (through August), averaged an approval rating among women that is 2.9 points higher than his approval rating overall, calculated on a month-by-month basis. So far this year, this gender gap has been 2.6 points, only marginally down from his term average. Women gave him a two point higher approval rating in May, four points higher in June, three points higher in July, and two points higher in August. So far in September, after 11 days of interviewing, his approval rating is two points higher among women than his overall rating.

So, the conclusion is that if Obama is losing support among women on a relative basis, it is very marginal -- to the tune of a drop in the gap between women’s approval and approval overall of less than one percentage point. 

We will want to continue to monitor the difference in the weeks and months ahead. If the gender gap falls for example to one point, or no points going forward, then the conclusion will certainly be that the president is losing the relative edge among women that has been a key part of his coalition to date. But it will take time to monitor the degree to which that is happening. At the moment, it’s safer to say that women are still more supportive of Obama than the average American, even though women’s absolute support has eroded over time along with everyone else’s. 

We will be reporting the results of similar analyses among other population subgroups at in the days ahead. I can say there is some evidence that Obama has, from late last year to the present, been losing his edge among Hispanics both on an absolute basis and relative to the general population, in part reflecting a drop from the very wide levels of support he attracted among that group during and after the 2012 election.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Americans’ Views of Terrorism as a Problem Facing the Nation

Terrorism is one of those issues that Americans hold as a “bubbling under” issue and concern. When probed about terrorism specifically, Americans rate it as an important issue and one that they are concerned about. However, without prompting, relatively few Americans mention terrorism as the top problem facing the country, much less than at many other points in time since the 9/11 attacks.

Here is a chart from earlier this year that helps explicate these findings. This chart shows both Americans’ rating of the importance of and their current level of satisfaction with a series of issues. 

Terrorism is clearly important; it ranks well above average for all of the issues tested. At the same time, it is one of the two issues about which Americans are the least dissatisfied -- along with the military. In short, although terrorism was a critical issue, at the point at which these data were collected, it was something that Americans thought was under control.   

These data were from January, so it’s possible things could have changed since then. But our most recent update on Americans’ views of the most important problem facing the country comes from the quite recent Sept. 4-7 interviewing, and shows only a small uptick in the percentage spontaneously mentioning terrorism in their responses -- from about 1% or less in recent months, to 4% now. As explained in the story, this doesn’t mean that terrorism isn’t seen as an important problem, but does underscore that Americans -- even at this point, with the increasing attention paid to ISIS and other situations -- are highly unlikely to perceive it as the nation’s top problem. (We did see 3% who mentioned the situation in Iraq specifically, the same as in August, up from 1% in July. But still, quite low.)

The trend over time on mentions of terrorism as the nation’s top problem has been down since the very big jump up just after 9/11. There have been occasional spikes since, but in recent years the trend has settled down to the point where very few mention it year after year.

There are several other recent polls that asked about terrorism directly. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Sept. 3-7 showed a spike in the percentage of Americans saying that, as a country, we are less safe than we were before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That poll showed 47% saying “less safe,” the highest in their history of asking the question since 2002. 

A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 91% of Americans say ISIS is a very or somewhat serious threat to the vital interests of the United States. Similarly, CNN’s report on a new poll it conducted says, “Seven in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States.”

These data underscore the basic finding that, when prompted, Americans do appear worried about ISIS and related threats. Clearly we don’t see the same spike in the percent mentioning terrorism as the most important question. Our best conclusion is that terrorism -- like adequate healthcare or a good education -- is an issue that Americans generally always consider to be important when they are asked about it. As of this past weekend, however, these concerns haven’t broken through to the point where they are crowding out worries about the economy, jobs, and dysfunctional government.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Role of Government in Race Relations Today

What should the role of government be in the arena of race and race relations in the U.S. today? This question has moved into the national conversation again after the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Representing the U.S. government, Attorney General Eric Holder flew to Ferguson recently to look into what the federal government could or should be doing to ameliorate the types of situations that occurred in that city when a young black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. A recent Politico story, for example, focused on the possibility that the situation in Ferguson could result in changes in police procedures and other aspects of race relations that might help prevent such a situation in the future.  

Historically the federal government has been at the forefront of bringing about change in race relations in this country, extending back not just to the President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, but more recently to President Harry Truman’s integrating the armed forces, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sending in federal troops to control situations with high racial tension, and the historic Civil Rights Act passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson. But with many overt or legal race barriers now removed by law, and with a wide ranging federal apparatus for adjudicating cases of race discrimination, the issue remains as to what additional actions or steps the federal government or other levels of government could or should take relating to race. Some proposals that have developed out of the Ferguson situation so far have focused on the Defense Department’s program of providing excess military equipment to local police departments and the possibility of a federal effort to require police officers to wear vest cameras while on patrol.

A review of our data from last summer’s major Minority Rights and Relations poll helps shed light on Americans’ views on the general question of how much government should be doing in the realm of race relations. The poll included updates on many Gallup trends relating to race and involved samples of 1,010 blacks and 2,149 non-Hispanic whites.

The results show that blacks are significantly more likely than whites to argue that government intervention is needed in the realm of race relations and civil rights, but that there is by no means a consensus within blacks that more such actions are needed. 

This conclusion is based first on this key question: “How much of a role, if any, do you think the government should have in trying to improve the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups in this country -- a major role, a minor role, or no role at all?” 

The responses showed that 22% of whites agreed that the government should have a major role, contrasted with 54% of blacks. This question allowed three responses, and while one in three whites say “no role” for the government, almost half say a “minor” role. Thus, one way of looking at this is to say that the significant majority of both whites and blacks agree that the government should have some role to play in improving the social and economic position of blacks and other minority groups in this country. The difference comes in the degree of involvement, with whites tilting to a “minor” role and blacks tilting to a “major” role. 

Note also that the view that government should play a major role in improving race relations has been decreasing over the four times that we’ve asked this question since 2004 -- among blacks a drop of 14 percentage points  and among whites 10 points. (Whites’ “major role” percentage did tick up over the last two years, however, while blacks’ continued to drop.) Our latest data point on this trend came from last summer, way before the Ferguson situation, but clearly as of that point the perception of a need for government to play major role in race relations had been dropping. This could, in part, reflect the fact that the country has its first black president in history and as a result an increase in perceptions that the country has become more racially tolerant.

Gallup has asked Americans four times since 1993 about the need for new civil rights laws. Overall, as of last summer's survey, 27% say that such new laws are needed, while more than seven in 10 say they are not. 

Again, blacks are more than three times as likely to say “yes” than whites. When Gallup first asked the question in 1993, after several years of focus on trials associated with the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King, the percent of both whites and blacks who said “yes” was higher. But since 2003, the trend has been generally stable, with a little more than half of blacks saying yes, compared with between 15% and 20% of whites.

So there is no question that the nation has a racial divide in terms of the perception of the appropriate role of government in race relations. Blacks are much more likely than whites to want the government to play a major role in improving the social and economic position of blacks and other minorities, and more likely to believe that new civil rights laws are needed. Still, there is no universal consensus on this even within the black segment of the population, with a significant minority of blacks saying that the government should play only a minor or no role in improving the positions of minorities, and saying that new civil rights laws are not needed.

Neither question specified exactly what the government would do if it had a more major role in race relations, nor what the new civil rights laws would be. But the responses to the questions do reflect different views of government’s role in this arena, and reflect the broad fundamental question of our times: What is the appropriate role of the government today in attempting to right wrongs; fix perceived problems; and change societal structures, systems, and culture in ways that are perceived to be in the interests of the greater good?

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