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Frank Newport: Public support of anti-terrorism strategy stable, high

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. He joined the chat room from Princeton.

CNN: Welcome, as always to, Frank Newport. Thanks for being with us today.

FRANK NEWPORT: It's good to be with you again.

CNN: Frank, last time you joined us -- on October 23 -- you said that nine out of 10 Americans approved of the military campaign in Afghanistan. Any change since then?

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NEWPORT: Very little. 86% of Americans approve of the military action in Afghanistan in our weekend poll, virtually unchanged from a couple of weeks ago. This is very interesting, because some people have argued that as criticism of the war becomes a little more prevalent, public opinion might fall as well. After all, to date, there have been no stunning victories that are obvious to the American public. Still, we find the same level of resolute support that we have found since September 11.

CNN: Does your latest poll show if President Bush is still enjoying the high level of support and approval that he has since September 11?

NEWPORT: Yes. This too is very unusual. The average job approval rating for presidents over the last 50 or 60 years has been in the mid 50% range. That means there's a natural tendency for presidents to gravitate to that range. Bush's job approval rating is now at 87%, and this marks the sixth poll since September 11 where he has been in the high 80% range. As everyone knows by now, I think, these are near the highest job approval ratings we have found in Gallup Poll history, and in spite of everything that's gone on, we just don't find any evidence yet that the public is beginning to downgrade their evaluation of their president.

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    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe these polls [show this level of support] because of the loss of American lives on U.S. soil and terrible human rights violations that occur under the Taliban?

    NEWPORT: [Are those] some of the reasons for these high numbers of support for the war and President Bush? I would say yes, particularly in terms of the attacks themselves. It has been a long time since American lives have been taken on this country's soil, and I think the public's anger is bound up in the fact that they want action to be taken against those responsible, and to a significant degree, are willing to pay the price necessary to have that action taken.

    I'm not as sure about the impact of the way in which the Taliban governs Afghanistan on these numbers. Clearly, there have been many other countries over the last decade who have been totalitarian in their control of their country, without our seeing an enormous outcry from the American public that military action needs to be taken against that country. The key here is that the terrorists responsible for the attack are said to be in Afghanistan. I think all of our data shows that's the objective that really matters to the public -- finding those responsible for the bombing.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Frank, will the likelihood of U.S. fatalities change the polls next time they are done, or do the polls indicate we are prepared for casualties and support will stay the same?

    NEWPORT: There's no question that our projective questions in the poll show that the American public is prepared to continue to support military action, even in the face of large numbers of casualties. I must have seen at least 10 or 15 questions that document that finding. So yes, on the face of it, I wouldn't think that reports of American casualties will in and of themselves cause dramatic change in support. We have learned in polling however that the reality is sometimes quite different from what we project. So, I would say the impact of some possible real-world scenario in which significant numbers of American soldiers are killed, is still a little difficult to gauge. I would point out that support for Vietnam continued fairly strong at least through the first two or three years of American involvement there, even as the death totals climbed into the tens of thousands.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Newport, have your polls investigated the American people's reaction to and opinion of the various generalized terror alerts ?

    NEWPORT: Yes, the public's becoming a little more positive about these sometimes controversial alerts. The question we asked a couple of weeks ago was do these alerts do more to help the public, or more to scare the public. Back then, Americans split almost evenly in asking the question. Now, we're up to 55% who say they do more good than harm. Also, over 7 out of 10 Americans say it's appropriate for the government to issue warnings, even when they can't be specific about the details.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much confidence do Americans have in the Congress to pass laws that will ensure the security of the United States?

    NEWPORT: A rising tide lifts all boats. By that I mean the generalized rally effect we have measured includes Congress, which in October zoomed up to higher than an 80% approval rating, the highest in history. By history, of course, I mean our Gallup Polling history. We don't have measures of the Congress in the early 1800's, for example. What these numbers tell us is that for the moment, at least, the public trusts the Congress to do what is necessary and important to fight terrorism. The interesting question will be how long these high ratings continue if we see Congress reverting back to the more partisan kind of bickering that is more typical of their deliberations.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are people saying about the vaccination vs. wait on vaccination question?

    NEWPORT: I don't think we have data that speaks specifically to that issue. I'm not sure which vaccine the question refers to. There's been controversy about the widespread use of the flu vaccine, and controversy in the military about widespread use of the anthrax vaccine. At this point, all we have measured is the fact that very few Americans tell us they have actively sought out vaccinations.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the general reaction to new security laws that are almost "big brother" like, particularly regarding the Internet and e-mail?

    NEWPORT: That's a good question. We now have the anti-terror act of 2001, which gives the government considerable powers. Our polling suggests there is some distinction in the minds of Americans about what they think their government should or should not be allowed to do. The question refers to e-mails and phones, I believe. That's one area Americans are very sensitive to. Some of our questioning shows that significantly less than a majority supports giving the government the power to read e-mails or tap phones, without the person knowing about it. That's even if it is argued it's necessary for national security reasons. Americans are all in favor of a variety of other things to be done, but as I mentioned, the public is not willing to give their government some of these types of big brother powers, even in the current situation.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Any questions on airline security?

    NEWPORT: Polling in general shows Americans are willing to put up with almost anything when it comes to increasing security at airports and on airplanes. I've looked at a list of everything that's been tested in polls, and almost everything gets strong majority support. That includes increased security that makes you wait in line for two hours, not being able to take carry-ons onboard, and so forth.

    CNN: Frank, do you have any closing comments or interesting info to share with us today?

    NEWPORT: Tomorrow is the anniversary of last year's highly controversial presidential election. What's interesting to us is that as the months have gone on, particularly since September 11, the importance of that situation has diminished significantly. A majority of Americans now say that that whole recount situation was either a minor problem, or not a problem at all, much different from last November and December, when much higher numbers of Americans said it was either a Constitutional crisis, or a major problem for the country.

    One interesting point: even as late as this past August, when we asked Americans who they would vote for, if they had a chance to vote over again for either Bush or Gore, the results were tied, which was just like the election outcome. But this last weekend, we asked the same question, and found, lo and behold, that Bush beats Gore by almost a 2-1 margin, if the vote were held again today. So, certainly, this general rally effect I've been talking about is broad enough to cover people's thoughts about last fall's election. Regardless of what really happened, it seems like the public at this point is content to have George W. Bush as their president.

    CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Frank Newport.

    NEWPORT: It's always good to be with you, and I look forward to being back soon.

    Frank Newport joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Tuesday, November 6, 2001.


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