Which Administration Is More Culpable for Terrorist Attacks?

by David W. Moore, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

In a recent poll, Gallup asked Americans whether the Bush administration, and separately the Clinton administration, had done all that could be expected to prevent terrorist attacks. The overall results showed that 54% of Americans thought the Bush administration had not done enough, but that an even larger 62% thought the Clinton administration had not done enough.

So, does this mean that Americans blame the Clinton administration more than the Bush administration for not doing enough to prevent terrorist attacks? That's the way it was reported, and at first glance it seems hard to conclude otherwise. However, an analysis of question order suggests that Americans may "really" blame both administrations about equally.

As part of Gallup's routine procedure, the two questions were rotated, so that half the sample was asked about the Bush administration first, and the other half was asked about the Clinton administration first.

A comparison of the results by the order in which the questions were asked shows some startling results. Respondents who were asked about the Bush administration first were evenly divided as to whether it had done all it could to prevent the terrorist attacks: 48% said it had, 48% said it had not.

 

Based on the information available to the Bush administration before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, do you think the Bush administration did - or did not - do all that could be expected to prevent the terrorist attacks?

 

Asked First

Asked After Similar
Question About Clinton Administration

 

%

%

Yes

48

35

No

48

60

Unsure

4

5

TOTAL

100

100

But when asked about the Bush administration after being asked a similar question about the Clinton administration, respondents were much more negative: Only 35% said the Bush administration had done all it could, while 60% said it had not.

The question about the Clinton administration elicited similar responses regardless of whether it was asked first, or after the question about the Bush administration. By margins of 61% to 34% (when asked about Clinton first) and 63% to 30% (when asked about Clinton after Bush), respondents said the Clinton administration did not do all it could have done.

 

Based on the information available to the Clinton administration in the 1990s, do you think the Clinton administration did – or did not – do all that could be expected to prevent terrorist attacks?

 

Asked First

Asked After Similar
Question About Bush
Administration

 

%

%

Yes

34

30

No

61

63

Unsure

5

7

TOTAL

100

100

Note, however, that in the "comparative" context, respondents give similar answers about the two administrations. We can think of the "comparative" context as one in which both administrations have been mentioned. For example, respondents who were asked about Bush after Clinton would be evaluating Bush in a comparative context, because they had already been reminded about Clinton's performance. Similarly, respondents asked about Clinton after Bush would be evaluating Clinton in a comparative context, because they had already been reminded about Bush's performance.

In the comparative context, 63% of respondents said the Clinton administration did not do all it could to prevent the attacks, while 60% said that about the Bush administration -- a difference that is not statistically significant.

It's in the non-comparative context that Bush fared much better than Clinton did. The non-comparative context evaluation of Bush would be when respondents were asked about the Bush administration first, not knowing they would be asked about the Clinton administration. Similarly, the non-comparative context evaluation of Clinton would be when respondents were asked about Clinton first, not knowing they would next be asked about the Bush administration. And in that context, 48% of respondents said Bush had not done enough, while 61% said that about Clinton.

The question these results raise is -- Why did Americans give Bush a much better rating than Clinton in the non-comparative context, at the same time other respondents gave the presidents about equal ratings in the comparative context?

Based on the available data, there is no definitive way to answer the question. But I would like to offer one theory.

The fact that Bush and Clinton received similar evaluations in the comparative context suggests that when people are asked about both administrations, they see little difference between the two -- both administrations should have done more. What about the non-comparative context?

My suspicion is that when Bush is mentioned first, people do not automatically think of Bush's performance in light of what the Clinton administration did. Their evaluation of Bush is more oriented to the present situation, to the surprise of the attacks on 9/11, and to other more general events associated with the terrorist attacks.

However, I suspect that when Clinton is mentioned first, people immediately think of his actions in comparison with what Bush is doing. After all, Clinton is out of office, and the terrorist attacks occurred when Bush was president. Thus, even mentioning Clinton would immediately set up what -- in effect -- is a comparative context. That's why, I hypothesize, that Clinton gets the same rating whether his administration is mentioned before or after the Bush administration.

A follow-up question might better address the issue of which administration is more to blame, by asking respondents explicitly to compare the two. In the meantime, the results of the question order experiment demonstrate that in opinion research, question context can exert a powerful influence on responses.


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/11239/Which-Administration-More-Culpable-Terrorist-Attacks.aspx
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