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Frank Newport: Support for military action against terrorist attackers

U.S. considers military response
U.S. considers military response  

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, New Jersey. He is in charge of the Gallup Poll assessment of American public opinion, which has been continuously measuring public moods and attitudes in this country since the 1930s.

CNN: Welcome, Frank Newport. Thank you for being with us today.

NEWPORT: It's good to be with you in these important times.

CNN: How strongly do Americans feel about military retaliation in response to the terrorist attacks last week?

NEWPORT: Very strongly supportive. We've reviewed over 10 polls that have been conducted since Tuesday, and it's an absolutely consistent finding that about nine out of 10 Americans support military actions against those responsible for the attacks. The specifics of the types of response vary based on how the question is put to respondents. But there is absolutely no question that the American public is supportive of decisive military action.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you feel there is a significant number of Americans who are looking for justice above all else?

NEWPORT: Yes, I'm sure that is a part of it. We have found out in the past that motivations for punishment, including the death penalty, are often complex. In this situation, part of the motivation is certainly to prevent future terrorist attacks from taking place, but I'm sure part of the motivation is also for straightforward retribution and justice.

CNN: How does Mr. Bush's present level of support compare historically to other presidents in times of national crisis?

NEWPORT: Survey scientists for many years have isolated what we call a "rally effect." When the U.S. is confronted with a crisis or challenge internationally, presidential approval has almost always gone up. This extends back to the Korean War, to JFK's Cuban missile crisis, to the taking of hostages in Iran when Carter was in the White House, and the Persian Gulf situation when Bush, the elder, was president. The rally effect we have just seen, however, is the largest in Gallup history.

President Bush's job approval rating has gone from 51 percent in our poll taken just before September 11 to 86 percent this weekend. That 86 percent level is just three points lower than the highest job approval in Gallup history. That was an 89 percent for Bush the elder just after the Persian Gulf War was finished in 1991.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the reason that the remainder disapprove of his handling of the crisis?

NEWPORT: The number who disapprove is extraordinarily small on a historic basis. We don't know exactly what their rationale is, but in polling, it's generally rare to find 80 or 90 percent of Americans who will agree with anything.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: But can you be specific about what kinds of military actions Americans support and over what period of time and how many casualties they are prepared to handle?

NEWPORT: Yes. Between our polling and the polling conducted by other organizations, a wide variety of contingencies and consequences have been tested. We find strong majority support for almost all of the circumstances that are spelled out for Americans. Sixty percent or higher of the public supports military action even if it means up to 1,000 American troops will be killed, that the war might last for years, that it could mean an economic recession in the U.S., or that there would be civilian casualties involved. The public already feels that the U.S. is at war today, based on our weekend polling, and at least at this point in time, Americans appear ready to accept the consequences of even a protracted military action.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What were the specific questions you asked [in your polls over the weekend]?

NEWPORT: Our latest poll was focused exclusively on the public's reaction to the attacks on America. I would say the questions focused on three areas. First, the levels of support Americans are giving to their leaders, country and government at this time of crisis. Second, the feelings of Americans about the issue of taking military action and going to war. Third, the issue of domestic security and what types of things Americans approve of within this country if they are necessary to forestall future acts of terrorism.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will you be polling over a period of weeks, asking the same question, in order to get a sustained number?

NEWPORT: Yes. We believe strongly that it is important to trend key questions and I'm sure we will continue to do so. We, for example, have already found a slight drop in the percent of Americans who are personally worried about being the victim of a terrorist attack when we compare our first poll we conducted Tuesday night to our weekend poll.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have there been any polls measuring people's thoughts about our policy of not taking out another country's leader?

NEWPORT: Yes. At least one poll found support for a reconsideration of this policy. In other words, support for the idea of punitive action taken directly against a single individual leader.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it not possible that this overwhelming support will begin to disintegrate if the strikes don't begin soon or go on for a long time without any concrete, tangible results?

NEWPORT: Yes. There is no question that we can and may see changes in public sentiment. In the Vietnam War, support eventually began to erode for the American presence there. But it took awhile for that to occur. On the flip side, support for going to war in the Persian Gulf was actually lower up until the military action actually began in '91 and then support jumped up. We are in unknown waters currently, and none of us has an idea of what will occur in the weeks and months to come. It will be our job to continue to monitor the public's reaction, which I believe is very important in a democracy, but none of us can gauge at this point what that reaction may be.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has there been any limit as to the length of time Americans are willing to wait for bin Laden to surrender before we attack?

NEWPORT: We did not ask that question specifically, however our polling and the polling of other organizations clearly indicates that Americans are willing to wait to take military action until it can be made clear who it was that was responsible for the attacks. In fact, only about one-quarter of Americans support the idea of taking immediate action against known terrorist organizations, while the majority say wait and be certain before the action begins.

CNN: Are Americans fearful that these attacks will negatively impact our economy over short or long term?

NEWPORT: We've really been studying the data to answer that type of question. We know that when pollsters ask Americans directly if the events of last week will have a negative impact on the economy or their own spending, we do get 30 and 40 percent who say yes. On the other hand, we noticed a fascinating phenomena on our weekend poll. When we ask Americans to rate the current economy, those ratings actually went up and became more positive than they were the weekend before. And when we ask Americans to say whether the economy was getting better or getting worse, we had an increase in the percent saying getting better.

Part of this reflects the type of rally effect that represents presidential job approval, but it did suggest to us that there may be some resilience to consumer confidence. The key economic question in my mind is consumer spending in the weeks and months ahead. And I think it's at least possible that we will not see the radical drop in spending that some have predicted.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do Americans think that there might be more terrorist attacks?

NEWPORT: Yes. That perception has gone down slightly since Tuesday when we had over half of Americans feeling that the attacks on Tuesday were part of a longer-term terrorist plan. Still, there continues to be at least some concern on the part of Americans that there may be other attacks. That's one of the reasons I think we find so much strong support for fairly severe actions such as two to three hour waits at airports, requiring metal detectors and IDs in all office buildings, and so forth.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How many Americans are in favor of nuclear warfare against bin Laden?

NEWPORT: We have not asked that question, and in my review of polling done by other organizations, I have not seen that that question has been asked.

CNN: Any final thoughts for us today, Frank?

NEWPORT: One interesting question from our weekend poll. We asked Americans if they thought the Twin Towers in the World Trade Center should be rebuilt, and we found about two thirds of Americans said "yes." These responses probably speak volumes about the resilience and determination of the American people.

CNN: Thanks for joining us today, Frank Newport.

NEWPORT: It's always good to share with you our assessments of the American public and hopefully we'll be back with you soon.

Frank Newport joined Newsroom via telephone from Princeton, NJ. CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, September 17, 2001.

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