Politics

Nine Years After 9/11, Few See Terrorism as Top U.S. Problem

by Frank Newport

One percent see it as the top problem today, down from 46% in 2001

PRINCETON, NJ -- Nine years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 1% of Americans mention terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, down from 46% just after the attacks.

September 2001-August 2010 Trend: Terrorism as Most Important U.S. Problem

Just before the attacks, in a Gallup poll conducted Sept. 7-10, 2001, less than one-half of 1% of Americans mentioned terrorism as the nation's most important problem. One month later, in October 2001, 46% named terrorism, the highest in Gallup's history.

From that point on, terrorism slowly faded as a response to this question. At the one-year anniversary of the attacks, in September 2002, 19% of Americans mentioned terrorism as the country's top problem, already eclipsed by the economy at the top of the list. By the five-year anniversary of the attacks in September 2006, 11% of Americans mentioned terrorism. Terrorism continued to drop from that point, albeit with an uptick to 8% mentions in January of this year, reflecting the widespread news coverage of the "Christmas Day bomber" who allegedly attempted to detonate explosives on a Northwest Airlines plane headed for Detroit.

As terrorism has faded, other concerns have risen in importance. Over the past nine years, Americans have most commonly mentioned the war in Iraq (from 2003 to early 2008) and the economy or jobs (from 2008 to the present) as the top problem facing the country.

Despite the drop in top-of-mind mentions of terrorism, Americans still say it is an important issue when they are reminded of it. Gallup recently asked Americans to rate the importance of a number of issues to their vote in this year's midterm elections, and 75% rated terrorism as an extremely or very important issue. Still, Americans rated economic issues such as the economy, jobs, and federal spending, as well as corruption in government and healthcare, even higher. They rated terrorism as more important than immigration, Afghanistan, and the environment.

The Sept. 11 attacks took place during the Republican Bush administration, which soon thereafter launched a "war on terrorism." Republicans have consistently been given more credit than Democrats for handling terrorism over the years since; in an August USA Today/Gallup poll, 55% of Americans say the Republicans in Congress are better able to handle the issue of terrorism, while 31% choose the Democrats.

Bottom Line

The low top-of-mind salience of terrorism as the top problem facing the nation no doubt reflects the absence of major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the nine years since 2001, although there have been occasional news reports of thwarted attacks. It may also reflect the degree to which economic concerns are crowding out most other issues at this point in the nation's history.

The dramatic jump in perceptions of terrorism as the most important problem between September and October 2001, however, serves as a reminder of the potential for terrorism to reclaim its prominence as a concern should there be new terrorist incidents in the future.

Survey Methods

Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Aug. 27-30, 2010, with a random sample of 1,021 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

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.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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