Americans Send No Clear Mandate on Guantanamo Bay

by Lymari Morales

Slightly more prefer keeping the prison open than prefer closing it, but 20% unsure

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With President Barack Obama already taking action relating to the U.S. prison Guantanamo Bay on his first full day in office, Americans are sending no clear mandate on the issue. Slightly more think the United States should not close the prison than say it should, 45% to 35%.


These views are similar to those expressed in 2007, at which time 33% favored closing the prison but 53% were opposed and 13% had no opinion. The major difference since that time is that slightly fewer now favor keeping the prison open (from 53% to 45%), and slightly more do not express an opinion (from 13% to 20%).

About 245 prisoners remain at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where at least 800 detainees have spent time since the Bush Administration began holding terrorist suspects there after 9/11. The Bush Administration contends the remaining prisoners are "the worst of the worst," but the long-term detentions there have become a symbol, in the United States and abroad, of U.S. mismanagement of the war on terrorism. The incoming Obama Administration has signaled it will swiftly make good on its campaign promise to close the prison, but Obama himself has said "it is more difficult than people realize." A recent Gallup Poll finds that closing Guantanamo is, in fact, not a top priority for Americans, only 32% of whom consider it "very important" that Obama fulfill his promise to do so, far fewer than say the same about other issues regarding healthcare, energy, and tax cuts. Now this additional question shows that a slight plurality favors keeping the prison open, although one out of five have no opinion on the issue. The poll also sheds light on the extent to which views on Guantanamo Bay break decisively down party lines. More than two-thirds of Republicans (69%) think the U.S. should keep the prison open, while more than half of Democrats (51%) think the prison should be closed.


A similar divide is evident by ideology. More than two-thirds of self-described liberals (68%) want to close the prison, while 61% of conservatives want to keep it open.


Taken together, two conclusions can be made in terms of Americans' views on Guantanamo Bay. President Obama's most loyal supporters -- Democrats and liberals -- do lean decisively toward closing the U.S. prison there. But Americans overall do not express such a clear preference, and in fact are more likely to prefer keeping the prison open. While swift action to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay will draw a clear dividing line between the policies of the Bush Administration versus the Obama Administration, it is more likely to be well-received by Obama's most loyal base of support than by the broader cross-section of Americans who have generally given high marks to Obama's presidential decisions so far. If Obama does choose to close the prison, which these data suggest would go against public opinion, at least to an extent, it could provide an early test of how much Americans' high ratings of Obama to date will reflect the more controversial decisions Obama, as president, will now be forced to make.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,046 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 16-17, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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