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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Very Conservative Americans Least Likely to Want Fiscal Cliff Compromise

Gallup asked Americans the following question on four successive weekends from Dec. 1-Dec. 22 -- for a total sample size of 4,170 randomly selected national adults:

What would you like to see government leaders in Washington do in the fiscal cliff negotiations -- [ROTATED: stick to their principles and beliefs on tax increases and spending cuts, even if no agreement is reached by the Jan. 1 deadline, (or) compromise on their principles and beliefs on tax increases and spending cuts in order to reach an agreement by the Jan. 1 deadline]?

Aggregated together, 67% of respondents said that leaders should compromise on their principles and beliefs on tax increases and spending cuts. Twenty-two percent said that leaders should stick to their principles and beliefs, even if no agreement is reached by the Jan. 1 deadline.

This is a pretty straightforward result. It has been replicated in polls conducted by CBS News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal. It is clear that the majority of the American people want their leaders to get away from their rigid beliefs that only they (the leaders) have the “right” perspective. Americans want their elected representatives to bend on principles and beliefs to reach an agreement that will avoid the cliff.

Americans' interest in compromise arises in part from the fact that Americans believe it is very important to avoid going over the cliff. Gallup polling shows that Americans believe that going over the cliff would have a negative impact on the nation as a whole and on their personal financial situations. A Bloomberg poll question showed that about two-thirds of Americans believe that going over the cliff would destabilize the economy and send the country back into recession. The stock market itself has been down this week. This is apparently in response to fears that the cliff will not be avoided.

If each elected representative in the House of Representatives made a decision based on the attitudes of the totality of the American people, each would seek compromise and avoid the fiscal cliff.

The fiscal cliff stalemate in Washington reflects the complex and highly researched process of negotiating. Most people in a negotiation come in with the feeling that they have the correct/rational position. They have desired outcomes. They have a strong interest in maintaining their positive presentation of self, or face.  They dislike the idea of conceding. They may dislike the people with whom they are negotiating. NHL hockey fans this year are seeing this played out as players and management have sailed over their own "hockey cliff."  It is not easy "getting to yes" in situations in which both sides have strong vested interests.

Yet, as we have seen, it is the desire of the American people that their elected representatives do just that.

Of course, representatives may believe that it is their place to ignore the wishes of the people and do what they think is right regardless. 

Or, representatives may believe that it is their place to represent only the people in their districts, not the totality of the American public. 

That latter point is important. If Americans' overall attitudes were distributed equally, about 67% of the residents in every district in the U.S. would tell their representative to compromise. These attitudes are not distributed equally, however.

I looked at the responses to the “compromise” question across ideological groups. The large sample size from December interviewing allows us to view detailed ideology, ranging from very conservative to very liberal. The results show significant majority support for the compromise position in four of the five ideology groups. The exception comes among the roughly 9% of the adult population who label themselves “very” conservative. These Americans tilt toward the “stick to your principles” position over the compromise position, by a 44% to 39% margin.

Those who label themselves as “conservative” but not “very conservative,” about 29% of the population, are slightly below the sample average of 67% favoring compromise. But they still strongly favoring compromise. More than seven in 10 moderates, liberals, and those who are “very” liberal favor compromise.

We don’t have the ability to map this five-part ideology measure across states or across all 435 congressional districts. We do know that the broader, three-part measure of ideology is distributed quite unequally across the nation.  For all of 2011, 53% of residents of Mississippi labeled themselves as conservative, compared with 19% in the District of Columbia and 29% in Massachusetts. We extrapolate these state data and make the assumption that congressional districts also vary widely in the ideological composition of their residents.

If proportioned equally, 9% of each congressional district would be very conservative. This is not the case, of course. We are willing to assume that some districts have a much higher proportion of those who are very conservative than others. Representatives from these districts would be more inclined to stick to their principles rather than compromise, if they interpreted their duty as representing their constituencies. As a thought process, we could hypothesize a situation in which the 9% of the population that is very conservative is spread out such that they constitute slightly above 50% of as many districts as possible. That would yield slightly more than 75 districts consisting of a majority of very conservative citizens.

More broadly, we can go back to our basic data on compromise. Remember that 22% of all American adults advocate that representatives stick to their principles. If these people were spread such that they constituted slightly above a majority of as many districts as possible, that would come to about 190 districts. In other words, it could be possible to have a situation with 190 Representatives representing districts in which a slight majority of their constituents advocated sticking to their principles rather than compromising on the fiscal cliff.

This would still be less than a majority of the House, of course. But, because most of these districts, we can assume, would be Republican, it is clear why it is difficult to achieve a situation in which the House Republican leaders could assemble enough votes for a compromise solution.

These are all very hypothetical scenarios, and ones in which we assume that elected representatives attempt to follow their districts' wishes. It is possible that elected representatives could vote based on what the totality of the American population wants, not just those in their districts. If this was the case, every one of the 435 members of the House would vote for compromise because 67% of the totality of the people want compromise.

The actual situation lies somewhere in between the extremes. Enough representatives apparently believe that a) their constituents want them to stick to their principles and not compromise and b) it is their duty to represent their constituents rather than the totality of the American population, to logjam the effort to reach a compromise in the House.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

President Obama in Tune With Public Opinion at Wednesday Press Conference

President Barack Obama's statements about Americans and attitudes toward gun violence at his Wednesday press conference were well-informed by recent polling information.

The president's main objective was to announce the formation of a task force on reducing gun violence, headed up by Vice President Joe Biden. The president was very careful throughout his speech to note that there are multiple causes of gun violence in addition to the central focus of many: gun control laws. In particular, he mentioned in the first minute or two "access to mental health," and "a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence."

Later in his speech, Obama said, "any single gun law can't solve all these problems. We're gonna have to look at mental health issues. We're gonna have to look at schools. There's gonna be a whole range of things that Joe's group looks at. We know that issues of gun safety will be an element of it ... "

In fact, in a quick-read Gallup poll conducted Tuesday night, the top three action steps Americans indicated would be most effective in preventing future school shootings were increased police presence at schools, more government spending on mental health screening and treatment, and a focus on reducing media and video game emphasis on gun violence.

All three actions came in ahead of a ban on assault weapons on the list of the six actions tested, suggesting that Obama is in sync with public opinion with his broad focus on many causes of gun violence, including, but not limited to, gun control.  

Obama did get specific about public opinion when he narrowed in on gun control. He said that a majority of Americans support: a) banning the sale of military-style assault weapons, b) banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, and c) laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases.

These assertions are correct, at least based on available data.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll of 602 respondents conducted Friday through Sunday showed 52% support for "a law requiring a nationwide ban on semi-automatic handguns, which automatically re-load every time the trigger is pulled." This isn't exactly the same thing as "military-style assault weapons" Obama mentioned, but in the same neighborhood. A CNN/ORC poll from last summer found higher support (57%) for a "ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of semi-automatic assault guns, such as the AK-47," although the question was asked in the context of a question root focusing explicitly on actions that had been proposed to reduce gun violence. Other polls have found similar support, varying depending on question wording.

Support for banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips is above the majority level in the ABC News/Washington Post poll and in previous polls. Support for background checks is very high in all polling I have seen.

Obama went on to say, "like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual a right to bear arms." That too is in line with available data. A 2008 Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans believed that the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution "guarantees the rights of Americans to own guns" as opposed to a belief that it only "guarantees members of state militias such as National Guard units the right to own guns."

The real key going forward for those focused on efforts to prevent future mass shootings is to remain cognizant of Americans' collective opinions about the efficacy of all of the various actions that can be taken. Obama certainly was well-briefed on recent polling before his press conference Wednesday, and he was following public opinion when he emphasized that Vice President Biden's task force would be looking at a wide variety of actions that could be taken to reduce gun violence.

We are updating our long-term Gallup trend on gun control, and by next week, we'll have a read on how much the terrible incident in Newtown has changed it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown Shootings Context: Americans' Attitudes Towards Gun Control

The tragic deaths of 20 children and 6 adults on Friday in Newtown, Conn., at the hands of a gun-wielding mass murderer raises again the issue of laws and policies concerning the sale and possession of guns.

Since laws and policies reflect the will of the people as manifested through their elected representatives, an understanding of American public opinion on this issue is critically important.

We at Gallup have written about gun control attitudes following mass shootings all too frequently over the last decade. The bottom line is that these tragic incidents do not appear to have affected the generally downward trend in support for stricter laws.

During the time period between April 1999 and October 2012, the nation saw mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2007; 13 at an immigration center in Binghamton, N.Y., in April 2009; 13 at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009; and 12 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012. Numerous other incidents claimed lives during this time period, including the shooting at a outdoor rally in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011 that took the lives of six people and critically wounded U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Despite all of these incidents over the past 13 years, Americans have, in general, become less likely to say that the country needs stricter gun control laws. In February 1999, the last poll before the Columbine shooting, 60% of Americans said the nation needed stricter gun control laws (this was in response to three options given to respondents in Gallup’s basic trend question: more strict, less strict, or kept as is). Within days of Columbine, an April 26-27 survey showed a slight increase to 66% in 1999. From that point on, the “more strict” percentage began to decline. It fell below 50% for the first time in October 2008. Last year it was 43% in October, the all-time low.

Gallup will update its basic trend question on gun control this week. A short-term uptick in the percentage of Americans wanting stricter gun laws would not be unexpected. This happened after Columbine. The real issue will be the degree to which the general pattern is disrupted on a longer-term basis. This historical pattern would suggest that long-term attitudes about gun control will not be substantially changed as the result of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It is possible, however, that this latest tragic incident could be a tipping point.

Why is it that mass shootings do not shift the public in the direction of desiring stricter gun control laws?

One answer can be found in the results of questions asked after the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. In both of these instances, less than half of Americans said that stricter gun laws would have prevented the tragedies. Seventy-two percent in a poll conducted after Tucson said, “this tragedy would have occurred even if the state of Arizona had stricter gun laws.”

Gallup found identical responses when a similar question was asked after the Virginia Tech shootings. In that instance, 72% said that the tragedy would have occurred even if the state of Virginia had stricter laws on handgun sales.

The basic issue of Americans’ apparently doubtful views of the efficacy of gun laws in preventing mass shootings is underscored by responses to an open-ended question asking after the Tucson tragedy. Gallup asked Americans to tell us in their own words what could be done to prevent mass shootings from occurring in the United States.

In response, significantly more Americans named things that were not directly related to gun control than things that were directly related to gun control.

The answers relating to gun control included: stricter gun control laws (24%), more extensive background checks for those buying guns (8%), banning the sale of handguns or bullets (5%), restricting  the sale of automatic handguns (2%). The “other” responses that did not explicitly name gun control included a wide variety of suggestions: better mental health screening and mental health support (15%), more education about guns (9%), stricter security for public gatherings (6%), better awareness of gun issues (4%), better parenting (4%), allow people to carry guns for protection (4%), bring God and morality back into people's lives (4%), tougher sentencing (3%), better enforcement of existing gun laws (3%), less media coverage of shootings (2%), and others.

On a broader front, a January poll this year found that half of Americans are satisfied with the nation’s laws or policies on guns. Of the 42% who are not, 25% said it is because these laws and policies needed to be stricter, while 8% said they needed to be less strict.

This level of satisfaction with gun laws and policies has remained generally constant since 2002. This question was asked in the context of satisfaction with a list of 24 aspects of American political and social life. Satisfaction with gun laws and policies is slightly above average, tied with satisfaction with the state of crime. The highest level of satisfaction, 76%, was with overall quality of life, followed by security from terrorism (72%). The lowest level of satisfaction was with the state of the economy (13%) followed by poverty and homelessness (25%).

In January 2011, Americans were asked about their interest in a list of actions that Congress could take. Americans were split right down the middle on the issue of Congress passing “stronger gun control laws.”  Forty-nine percent favored this action, while 50% opposed.

Of the list of eight possible actions read to respondents, stronger gun laws was eclipsed by interest in a new energy bill that provides incentives for using solar and other alternative energy sources (83% favored), a bill to overhaul the federal tax code (76%), speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan (72%), passing an energy bill that expands drilling and exploration for oil and gas (65%), and a free-trade agreement with South Korea (63%).

The issue of bans on the sale of automatic weapons and ammunition for these weapons has been frequently mentioned in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown. Gallup has not frequently measured opinion about this specific gun control issue, but has occasionally asked about a law that would make it illegal to “manufacture, sell, or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles.” A majority of Americans supported this type of law in 1996 and 2000, but support in October 2011, the last time it was asked, was down to 43%.

It thus appears that Americans make little differentiation between support for stricter gun control laws in general, and support for a specific law that would ban semi-automatic guns such as assault weapons.

Additionally, in response to a separate question most recently asked in October 2011, only 26% of Americans supported a ban on the possession of handguns. Support for banning handguns was above 50% when Gallup first asked the question in 1959, by has been below the majority point in recent decades.

On Sunday night in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama said the country could not just stand by and watch as these types of tragic events take place but that the country needs to take actions to prevent future occurences. It is unclear, however, justs how many Americans are convinced that actions taken by government and society can prevent such incidents in the future.

In a March 2005 survey, taken just after the Red Lake, Minn., incident that claimed the lives of 10 including the shooter, six in 10 Americans said that such shooting incidents will happen regardless of what government and society do, while 36% said that government and society can take actions to prevent them. This marked a reversal from a 1999 survey taken after Columbine in which a slight majority thought that government could make a difference in preventing mass shootings.

Bottom Line

It is clear overall that, before this most recent tragic incident in Connecticut, the majority of Americans were not interested in new, stricter gun laws, even over a 10-year period of time in which mass shootings using guns have occurred with relentless frequency. Part of this reluctance, apparently, is due to a sense on the part of many Americans that stricter gun laws per se will not have an deterring effect on mass shootings, or even more generally the belief that there is not a lot that government and society can do to prevent such shootings.

It is certainly possible that this most recent, horrific shooting -- involving as it did the deaths of 20 first-grade children along with six adults -- could move the American public to a position in which it begins to change these basic beliefs. We will know more this week as we update and assess these attitudes again.

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