Americans a Little Less Hawkish on Defense Than Last Year

by David W. Moore

No change in support for missile defense system

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Compared with last year, Americans are a little less willing to spend on defense and less likely to believe that this country's national defense is too weak, according to Gallup's annual poll on defense and foreign policy issues. Half of the public is satisfied with the level of U.S. military strength, but those who are dissatisfied are more likely to say that national defense is not strong enough than say it is too strong. However, those who say it is not strong enough are less prevalent than they were last year. Despite fears that North Korea may soon resume a nuclear weapons program, the poll shows that there has been virtually no change since April of last year in the public's reaction to a proposal to build a missile defense system in the United States.

The poll was conducted Feb. 3-6 and finds that Americans are about evenly divided over whether the government is spending too much (27%) or too little (25%) for national defense and military purposes. A plurality of 44% say the government is spending about the right amount, and another 4% have no opinion.

Opinion of Defense Spending

In the late 1990s, the public was also about evenly divided on the issue, with a plurality indicating the government was doing just fine. In 2000, as both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates campaigned for higher levels of defense spending, the public's response shifted to a greater concern that too little was being spent on defense. In August 2000 and again in February 2001, about four in 10 Americans said the government was spending too little, with about half that number said the government was spending too much. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by an increase in defense spending to meet the terrorist threat, public concern about spending too little declined, and in last year's annual Gallup survey on the issue, 33% said the government was spending too much, while 17% said too little. The current results show an even larger shift away from concern about too little defense spending. Twenty-five percent say spending is too low (a decline of 8 points since last year), while 27% say spending is too high (an increase of 10 percentage points). These results may reflect the fact that the poll was conducted in the middle of a major build-up of U.S. forces in the Middle East preparatory to a possible war with Iraq, perhaps reinforcing the perception that large amounts of money are already being spent on the military.

Majority Says Strength of National Defense "About Right"

A separate question on defense finds a similar shift in public opinion over the past year. Currently, half of all Americans, 52%, believe that the country's national defense is about right, while another 34% say it is not strong enough, and 13% say it is stronger than it needs to be.

Opinion of National Defense

The percentage saying the strength of defense is about right has remained fairly steady over the past four years of polling, but the percentage saying it is not strong enough shows a significant drop this year compared with last -- from 43% to 34%. Similarly, the percentage saying the country's defense is stronger than it needs to be shows an increase, from 6% to 13%. These results show a public that is generally satisfied, but among those who are not content the concern is more about defense not being strong enough than about it being too strong. Still, the shift in opinion is similar to that found earlier -- less commitment to defense than what was measured a year ago.

Support for Missile Defense System Holds Steady

Given North Korea's recent decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (signed by most countries in the world) and restart its nuclear weapons program, one might have expected an increase in public support for the United States to build a missile defense system. North Korea has admitted that it has a program to develop nuclear weapons, and experts suggest that country has the ability to launch a nuclear missile as far as the west coast of the United States. But the current poll finds no increase in support for such a defense system compared with last April or even February of last year.

Should the United States Spend the Money to Develop a Missile Defense System?

About a third of the public is uncertain about whether the government should provide funds for research and possible development of such a system, while the rest divide two-to-one in favor, 46% to 21%. There appeared to be a slight surge in support for the system in February 2002, the first time the question had been asked after the 9/11 attacks, but the current level of support is about the same as it was prior to 9/11.

Despite the high ratio of support to opposition, Americans do not appear strongly committed to this program, and instead are more likely to take their lead from political leaders. Overall, just 44% of Americans are so firmly committed to their point of view that they would be upset if their position were not adopted -- 28% who favor and 16% who oppose the program. The 44% who would be upset constitute the public with a "directive" public opinion -- they feel strongly about their position and want it adopted.

Position on Spending for Missile Defense System
Feb 3-6, 2003

Twenty-three percent of Americans have an opinion on the issue, but would not be upset if their opinion were not adopted as policy -- 18% who favor and 5% who oppose the system. Combined with the third who have no opinion at the present time, that means that over half of all Americans, 56%, constitute a public with a "permissive" opinion -- as they appear ready to accept either outcome.

These views are virtually identical to those expressed in April 2002.

Opinion on defense matters is highly related to political affiliation, with Republicans much more likely than Democrats to say the military is not strong enough and that not enough is being spent on the military. On the missile defense system, the percentage of each group with a "directive" opinion is identical at 44%, though Republicans show support for the system and independents and Democrats are about evenly divided.

  • Republicans -- 37% in favor (and upset if not adopted), 7% opposed (and upset if adopted)
  • Independents -- 23% to 21%
  • Democrats -- 24% to 20%

Survey Methods

The latest results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 3-6, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. 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.

There is much discussion as to the amount of money the government in Washington should spend for national defense and military purposes. How do you feel about this? Do you think we are spending too little, about the right amount, or too much?

 

Too little

About right

Too much

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Feb 3-6

25

44

27

4

2002 Feb 4-6

33

48

17

2

2001 Feb 1-4

41

38

19

2

2000 Aug 24-27

40

34

20

6

2000 May 18-21

31

44

22

3

1999 May 7-9

28

35

32

5

1998 Nov 20-22

26

45

22

7

1993 Mar 29-31

17

38

42

3

1990 Jan 4-7

9

36

50

5

1987 Apr 10-13

14

36

44

6

1986 Mar 4-10

13

36

47

4

1985 Jan 25-28

11

36

46

7

1983 Sep 9-12

21

36

37

6

1982 Nov 5-8

16

31

41

12

1981 Jan 27

51

22

15

12

1976 Jan 23-26

22

32

36

10

1973 Sep 21-24

13

30

46

11

1971 Mar 11-14

11

31

50

8

1969 Nov 12-17

8

31

52

9



SPLIT SAMPLED

Do you, yourself, feel that our national defense is stronger now than it needs to be, not strong enough, or about right at the present time?

BASED ON -- 483 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

 

Stronger than needs to be

Not strong enough

About
right

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Feb 3-6 ^

13

34

52

1

2002 Feb 4-6

6

43

50

1

2001 Feb 1-4

7

44

48

1

2000 May 18-21

6

38

55

1

2000 Jan 13-16

6

39

52

3

1999 May 7-9

7

42

48

3

1990 Jan 4-7

16

17

64

3

1984 ^

15

36

46

3

^

Asked of a half sample.

Gallup/Newsweek.



Do you, yourself, feel that the United States military is stronger now than it needs to be, not strong enough, or about right at the present time?

BASED ON -- 518 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

Stronger than needs to be

Not strong enough

About
right

No
opinion

2003 Feb 3-6

8%

27

62

3



Recently there has been some discussion about the possibility of the United States building a defense system against nuclear missiles. Do you think the government should or should not spend the money that would be required for research and possible development of such a system, or are you unsure?

 

Should

Should not

Unsure

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Feb 3-6

46

21

33

*

2002 Apr 22-24 ^

47

20

33

*

2002 Feb 4-6

51

16

32

1

2001 Jul 19-22 ^

41

28

31

*

2001 Feb 1-4

44

20

36

*

^

Asked of half sample.



* -- Less than 0.5%

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