Defense Spending

by David W. Moore, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

The Bottom Line

Currently, there is little consensus about either increasing or cutting defense expenditures, and a review of Gallup polls over the past three decades shows this situation to be typical. Currently, close to a majority of Americans say defense spending is about right, with the rest divided two-to-one saying defense spending is too little rather than too much.

Key Indicator

"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?"

Stability

For most of the times this question has been asked of Americans, the number who say defense spending is "about right" has varied in the 30% to 40% range, with the rest of the public divided between a pro- and anti-spending stance. During this time, generally more people have said there was too much rather than too little spending, but there have been two major exceptions. This first occurred in the context of the 1981 presidential election, when the two major candidates favored increased spending and a majority felt that spending was too little. The other exception is the current situation, starting with the 2002 presidential campaign, when the eventual winner was calling for more defense spending, followed a year later by the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Although more people now say defense spending is too little than say it is too much, the largest plurality says spending is about right.

Range of Opinion

Opinion has varied from a 44-point margin who said defense spending was too much rather than too little (52% to 8%) to a 36-poing margin in the opposite direction (15% too much, 51% too little) -- a net swing of 80 points on that question. The percent saying defense spending is about right has varied from a low of 22% in January 1981 to a high of 48% in February 2002.

Differences

The most significant differences are between Republicans on the one hand, and independents and Democrats on the other -- with Republicans typically most likely to support increased defense spending.

Urgency

The public generally pays little attention to defense issues, and thus the low saliency of the issue to the public suggests there is typically little pressure for change in one direction or the other. What pressure exists comes from the "top down" -- from political leaders to the public -- rather than the reverse. The current situation reflects this willingness of the public to defer to political leaders on the matter of defense.


Overview of Public Opinion and Defense Spending

In general, the issue of defense spending is of relatively low salience to the public. Currently, almost a majority of Americans, 48%, believe the level of defense spending is about right, with the rest split two-to-one in favor of more spending. A review of Gallup polls over the past three decades shows the current situation to be typical: on only a few occasions has there been a majority who felt that spending was either too much or too little. Typically, about 30% to 40% of Americans indicate that spending is about right (the 48% who currently express this view represents the highest percentage recorded by Gallup since it began asking the question in 1969), while the rest divide between those who want more and those who want less spending, with neither side reaching a majority. However, there are exceptions to this general pattern, and current poll results indicate that the public is more in favor of defense spending now than it has been in twenty years -- a situation that occurred during the 2002 presidential campaign, well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

One of the major defense issues to be faced by Congress in the next few years will be whether to authorize funds for the development of a missile defense shield. While Americans initially react positively to the concept of building such a shield to protect the United States from a nuclear attack, they are generally unaware of the issue and are strongly influenced in their poll responses to the wording of the questions. These results suggest that no public consensus has emerged on whether such a system should actually be built, although initial reaction tends to be quite positive -- especially in the post-9/11 environment. Still, public support may largely depend on whether early tests of a proposed anti-missile shield ever demonstrate that such a system could actually work as intended. A special analysis further suggests that only about four in 10 Americans currently have a "directive" opinion on the matter: 28% favor and 13% oppose the missile defense shield, and would be "upset" if the decision on the matter contradicted their opinions. The other 59% of Americans have a "permissive" attitude about this issue, indicating that they either do not have an opinion as to whether the missile shield should be built, or they are willing to defer to political leaders to make the decision.

Public Support for Increased Defense Spending at Relatively High Level, But Still Less Than a Majority

The most recent Gallup poll focusing on defense issues, conducted February 4-6 of this year, shows that 33% of Americans say that the country is spending too little on national defense and the military, 18% say too much, and 48% say about the right amount. These numbers are similar to those measured in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in May 2000, when 31% said too little, 22% said too much and 44% said about right. However, the interim two polls, taken in August 2000 and February 2001, showed more concern about spending -- with about four in 10 saying spending was too little, two in 10 saying too much, and about a third saying about right. The change in numbers from last year to this year, with fewer people now saying there is too little spending, probably reflects the fact that the Bush administration has significantly increased defense spending in response to the terrorist attacks.

As an indication of how weakly held are American attitudes about defense, however, a survey by the University of Maryland two years ago asked respondents if they would support a 10% cut in defense spending to improve education, strengthen Social Security, and pay down the national debt. The poll was conducted September 21-25, 2000, sandwiched between the two Gallup polls showing that just one in five Americans felt spending was too much. But given the wording of the University of Maryland survey, 63% of Americans supported the cut in defense, while just 31% were opposed.

Support for Defense Spending Varies Over Time

A review of Gallup trends on this question over the past three decades shows that rarely has there been a majority who felt that spending was either too little or too much. And rarely has there been any kind of consensus as to whether spending is too little, too much or about right, with plurality opinion shifting over time. For most of the time, the number who says defense spending is "about right" has varied in the 30% to 40% range, with the rest of the public divided between a pro- and anti-spending stance. During this time, generally more people have said there was too much rather than too little spending, but there have been two major exceptions. Both occurred in the context of presidential elections when the two major candidates favored increased spending. One of these exceptions was in 1981, following Ronald Reagan's first successful campaign for the presidency, when he argued for the need to increase defense spending, at the same time that President Jimmy Carter was actually proposing increases to Congress. The second exception to the general rule -- that more people say too much is being spent on defense rather than too little -- is the present time. As in 1981, opinion today is being measured in the wake of a presidential campaign when both candidates supported significant increases in defense spending, and in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Unites States.

The trend line in the accompanying graph shows that Americans were most likely to say there was too much defense spending in the wake of the Vietnam War, with the highest numbers in 1969, the first year the question was asked, but with the percentage declining as spending also declined. The number who said there was too much spending remained at high levels during most of the '80s and into 1990, during the recession, when it reach the 50% level again, but then declined to 42% in the early 1990s. In the past couple of years, Republicans have generally been more vocal than Democrats in calling for increased defense spending, but the election campaign witnessed the unusual situation where the Democratic candidate was calling for higher increases in defense spending than the Republican. Given that both candidates proposed higher spending, it is not surprising that the percentage of Americans saying too much is being devoted to defense reached the second lowest level in over 30 years, and the lowest in over 20 years.

A related question asks Americans how they view the strength of our national defense. As the table below indicates, Gallup has asked the question only a few times, the latest in February 4-6, 2000. Note that 43% say not strong enough, essentially the same as last year long before the Sept. 11 attacks. Clearly, the terrorist attacks have not changed how the public views the status of national defense.

The table also shows that people are very reluctant to say that our defense is "stronger than it needs to be." Each time that the question was asked, the greatest number of people respond that the national defense is "about right": from 48% to 55% take that position in the five polls asked in the past three years, while 64% opted for that description in 1990, during the recession. In 1984, during the last year of Reagan's first term, following significant increases in defense spending, only 36% said the national defense was not strong enough, while 46% said about right and another 15% said stronger than it needed to be.

 

"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?"

Stronger than needs to be

Not strong enough

About
right

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

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

^

Gallup/Newsweek



Salience of Defense Spending to the Public is Low

Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans considered the defense issue of relatively minor importance. When asked in January 2001, how important it was that the president and Congress address military and defense issues in the following year, 26% said extremely important, the second lowest of all items measures, just above foreign policy. In October 2001, about a month after the terrorist attacks, 57% said military and defense issues were extremely important. These results suggest that the salience of the issue to the American public was boosted by the events of 9/11. But in a poll conducted Sep. 7-10, just before the attacks, a somewhat differently worded question, which asked how important was it that Congress pass new laws that are "designed to address and reform" military and defense issues, yielded results very close to those of the subsequent October poll. In the September poll, 55% of respondents said the issue was extremely important, and another 31% said very important, virtually the same numbers as those measured in the October poll.

...how important is it to you that the president and Congress deal with each of the following issues in the next year -- is it -- extremely important, very important, moderately important, or not that important? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

Military and defense issues

 

Extremely important

Very important

Moderately important

Not that important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2002 May 28-29

39

43

14

3

1

2002 Jan 11-14

42

40

15

3

*

2001 Oct 5-6

57

31

11

1

*

2001 Sep 7-10*

55

31

11

2

1

2001 Jan 10-14

26

42

26

4

2

*How important is it that Congress pass new laws this year designed to address and reform...military and defense issues?



These results suggest that the salience of military and defense issues after 9/11 was not influenced as much by the terrorist attacks as by the fact that already the Bush administration was pushing for increases in defense spending, consistent with his earlier campaign promises.

Since then, the percentage of Americans who say that these issues are extremely important has declined, so that in a May 2002 poll, just 39% gave that response. That there has in fact been a significant increase in defense spending to fight the war on terrorism may at least partially account for the lowered salience of the issue. As people see that spending has increased and that there is a widespread consensus among the representatives of the two major parties on the issue, the public is less likely to identify the issue as an extremely important one the president and Congress need to deal with in the coming year.

Republicans More Supportive of Defense Spending than Democrats

As is typically the case, Republicans tend to be more supportive of defense issues than either independents or Democrats. But compared with the other two partisan groups, Republicans this year show the largest declines in the percentage who say defense spending is too little and that national defense is not strong enough.

The poll this year (Feb. 4-6) shows that 45% of Republicans feel there is too little spending, compared with 58% of Republicans who took that position last year (Feb. 1-4) -- down 13 percentage points. By contrast, 26% each of independents and Democrats this year say spending is too little, compared with 35% and 30% respectively who took that position last year -- down nine percentage points among independents, and just four points among Democrats.

Similarly, 49% of Republicans this year and 61% last year said the country's defense was not strong enough, a 12-point decline. Independents and Democrats both show slight increases in the percentage who take that position: 42% of independents this year, compared with 40% last year; and 38% of Democrats this year, compared with 31% last year.

Despite the larger declines among Republicans on both issues, the rank and file GOP remains more hawkish on both issues than either the independents or Democrats.

Support for Concept of Missile Defense System

In the early years of the cold war, there was much concern over the construction of a missile defense system that could undermine the implicit strategy of "Mutual Assured Destruction" that existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Such a shield was referred to then as an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. In 1972, President Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, which prohibited either the Soviet Union or the United States from building defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the 1980s, President Reagan resurrected the possibility of building an ABM system, though it was called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as "Star Wars." One reason for the willingness of the Soviets and Americans to agree to the ABM Treaty in 1972 was that the technology to build such a system seemed at best a long way off. In the 1980s, the SDI proposal was also hurt by the failure of the prototype to shoot down incoming missiles during field tests. In the past several years, there has been increasing interest in developing such a system, not to protect the United States against a barrage of Soviet missiles, but rather against a limited attack of a few missiles by a rogue nation or by terrorists. Even now, there is some doubt about whether it will ever be possible to develop an effective shield, and President Bill Clinton left the decision about going forth with planning for a new system to the new president. During the campaign and since assuming office, President George W. Bush has indicated his firm support for proceeding with research and development on a new missile shield.

According a Gallup poll conducted February 1-4, 2001, 44% of Americans express support for developing a defense system against nuclear missiles, while 20% are opposed, and more than a third -- 36% -- say they are unsure. A year later, in the February 4-6, 2002 poll, support had increased to 51%, opposition had decreased to 16%, and the percentage saying unsure had decreased to 32%.

The question asked in both surveys explicitly asked respondents if they were unsure, thus eliciting the high proportion in that category. When respondents are asked their views without an explicit suggestion of unsure, however, more than a majority express support for the missile shield.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in July 2001 showed that 53% of Americans said the government should spend the money necessary to build such a system, 36% said it should not, and only 11% volunteered the response that they had no opinion on the issue. In a poll conducted Oct. 19-21, about a month after the terrorist attacks, support for a missile defense system had jumped to 70%, with just 26% opposed, and only 4% expressing no opinion. In the Apr. 22-24, 2002 poll, which also used the "forced-choice" format (where the unsure option is not offered to the respondent, but is recorded if volunteered), Americans continued to give widespread support, by 64% to 30%, with only 6% saying they were unsure.

These results suggest that the concept of building a missile defense system sounds appealing (and even more so in the post 9/11 environment), and lacking any reason not to build the system, a majority of Americans express their support for it. However, when respondents are explicitly given the choice of saying unsure, many opt for that choice, thus reducing the number who are in favor as well as those who are opposed.

Variation in Responses Due To Question Wording

While the general concept of a missile shield seems to be appealing to the American public, many people have second thoughts when some of the details are presented during the poll itself. Indeed, recognizing that many people are not aware of the issues involved in the construction of a missile defense system, some polling organizations deliberately present arguments on both sides of the issue in order to measure how people view the system in light of facts that may otherwise be unknown. The results of these questions vary considerably, suggesting anywhere from large majorities in favor of building a missile system to large majorities opposed. Key to the differences in results is the precise wording of the question, with the argument that the system might not work -- as has been asserted by numerous scientists -- most likely to sway opinion on this matter.

One example of this type of question was included in a May 2000 poll conducted by the People and the Press. Respondents were told "some people feel the U.S. should try to develop a ground-and-space-based missile defense system to protect the U.S. from missile attack. Others oppose such an effort because they say it would be too costly and might interfere with existing arms treaties with the Russians." Then respondents were asked what position came closer to their view, and 52% opted to develop the system, while 37% said no. As noted earlier, a Gallup poll in July found support for the missile shield at 53% to 36%, virtually the same as the results of the People and the Press poll. Since the Gallup poll provided no arguments on either side, it appears as though arguments presented by the People and the Press for and against the shield did not affect the public's basic positive orientation toward the project.

An ABC Poll conducted at the end of April 2000, just a week before the People and the Press poll, however, produced quite different results. The arguments presented by this polling organization were considerably more negative than those presented by the People and the Press, as respondents were told that the land-and-space-based missile defense system would protect the United States from a "limited nuclear attack" (rather than just "missile attack" as was stated in the People and the Press poll), and that the system had already cost $60 billion. ABC respondents were also told "opponents say it wouldn't work, would cost too much, and could create a news arms race." When asked whether they supported or opposed developing "this kind of missile defense system," a majority -- 52% -- said they would oppose it, while 44% would support it. The major new argument here is the statement that opponents say "it wouldn't work," an argument that the CBS News/New York Times poll found to be very potent in changing people's minds.

The CBS News/New York Times poll was conducted in mid-May 2000, at about the same time as the ABC poll and People and the Press poll. The CBS/NYT poll first asked people how much they had heard about "the current debate surrounding the proposed missile defense system to protect the U.S. against nuclear missiles." Then the poll asked respondents whether they would "favor or oppose the United States continuing to try to build this missile defense system against nuclear attack." After having heard two times that the missile shield was intended to defend the country against nuclear attack, 58% of respondents said they favored the system, while 28% were opposed -- more support than found by the People and the Press (which presented arguments on both sides of the issue). But then the CBS/NYT poll presented some facts about the issue that did not augur well for the missile defense system, and asked supporters if in light of these facts, they would still support the shield. It also presented one argument in favor of the missile shield (that it had a good chance of working) to the original opponents, to see if that would change their minds.

The results of these arguments are shown below. Each question was asked only of the supporters or the opponents. The percentages were recalculated, based on the change in opinion of just that one group of respondents. Thus, as shown below, once the supporters were told that the system had already cost $60 billion, about one in nine no longer expressed support, mostly indicating opposition. A recalculation of attitudes based on that one factor shows that once people are told the system costs $60 billion, there is still net support -- 47% to 35%. Once people are told, however, that many scientists say the system is unlikely to work, the opposition is about two-to-one, with 56% opposed and 25% in favor. Similarly, when told that building the system means the United States would have to break the arms control treaty it now has with Russia, 52% oppose the system and only 28% support it. Finally, if respondents believed the system had a good chance of working successfully, they would support it by an overwhelming margin of 71% to 12%.

Favor

Oppose

Unsure

%

%

%

Initial presentation of question

 

58

 

28

 

14

The United States has already spent $60 billion trying to develop this system. Knowing that, do you [still] favor or oppose…

(asked only among the supporters)

 

47

 

35

 

18

What if many scientists conclude it is unlikely that such a system will ever work, then do you [still] favor or oppose…

(asked only of supporters)

 

25

 

56

 

19

What if continuing to build such a system meant that the United States would have to break the arms control treaty we now have with Russia -- then would you [still] favor or oppose…

(asked of supporters only)

 

 

28

 

 

52

 

 

20

What if the system had a good chance of working successfully to defend against accidental missile launches -- then would you favor or oppose…

(asked of opponents only)

 

71

 

12

 

17

This kind of hypothetical polling has limits in projecting what the general public would really think under each condition, since in the real world, the dissemination of information is not as clear and thorough as when interviewers are talking to respondents in a polling situation. But the results do suggest how potentially malleable public opinion is on the matter, depending on which types of arguments are presented.

The People and the Press poll found a similar change in the public's views, when it asked about Russia's possible reaction to the construction of a missile shield. As noted above, in the May 2000 poll, the People and the Press presented arguments for and against the system, and then found a majority supporting the shield by 52% to 37%. The next question asked respondents whether the United States should "go ahead with developing a missile defense system, even if that jeopardizes negotiations with the Russians aimed at further reducing the nuclear arsenals in both countries, or should the U.S. hold off on developing a missile defense system and focus on negotiating further arms reductions with the Russians?" This question elicited a majority opposed to going ahead with development of the missile shield, with 55% opting to focus on negotiating further arms reductions, and just 37% supporting development of the system.

By contrast, a poll by Zogby International in February 2000, presented arguments against the missile shield that excluded the potential cost of the system and the possibility that the missile shield would not work. Respondents were asked which of two statements best represented their views: "Constructing a national defense system will undermine our nuclear treaty with Russia and produce an unstable international situation," or "Our best hope for long-term defense is developing our own missile defense system and not relying on treaties." The wording against the system highlights this country's self-determination as well as skepticism of international treaties, thus producing the greatest margin of support found by any of the major public opinion polling organization: 61% in favor of developing the missile system, and just 29% in opposition.

In the Apr. 22-24 Gallup poll, another type of analysis was made of the public's attitudes on this issue. People who said they supported the missile defense system were asked if they would be upset if the system were not funded, while people who opposed it were asked if they would be upset if it were funded. The intent here was to measure how many people held what we called "directive" opinions (they supported or opposed the measure and would be upset if their opinion did not prevail) and how many people held "permissive" opinions (they either had no opinion on the matter, or if they indicated either support or opposition, they also said that they would not be upset if the president and Congress did the opposite of what view they expressed).

The results showed that on the "forced-choice" question, the one that elicited greater support because it did not offer an explicit "don't know" option, just over half of respondents had "directive" opinions: 36% expressed support and would be upset if no missile defense system is built, and 17% expressed opposition and would be upset if the defense system were built. That is a much lower level of support and opposition than what was measured by the forced-choice question, which found support over opposition by 64% to 30%.

Missile Defense System
(Forced Choice Question)

The question that specifically offered a "don't know" option found an even lower percentage of Americans with a "directive" opinion. In that version, just four in 10 Americans expressed an opinion that they wanted implemented, with 28% in support of the defense missile shield and 13% opposed. Thus, 59% of Americans had "permissive" opinions, suggesting that they were willing to take the lead of their political leaders in making the decision.

Missile Defense System
(Unsure Option Mentioned in Question)

This effort to measure directive and permissive opinions reinforces the conclusion that the public's response to the issue is quite dependent on question wording and other information provided in the questionnaire itself.

Low Level of Attention Paid to Missile Defense Issue

The variation in opinion about a possible defense shield is most likely due to the low level of knowledge Americans have on the subject and thus their susceptibility to being influenced by information provided in the survey itself. The July 2000 Gallup poll showed that just 11% of Americans said they had been following the issue very closely. These results are similar to those obtained by the May 2000 People and the Press poll, when 10% said they had been following the issue "a lot," and to the CBS/NYT poll the same month that found 6% of Americans saying they had heard "a lot" about the issue. The two polls used different scales -- with the People and the Press offering a 3-point scale and the CBS/NYT a 4-point scale -- which probably accounts for the slight difference in results between them. Still, the point is clear -- very few Americans pay a great deal of attention to this issue.

This point is reinforced by a CBS News/New York Times poll in July 2000, that showed 58% of the public believing the United States already had a missile defense system, and another 14% were unsure. Just 28% correctly said that the U.S. does not currently have such a system.


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