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Frank Newport: Support for President Bush and military action

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 chat room from Princeton, NJ on Tues. Oct. 23.

CNN: Welcome back to Frank Newport. It's always good to have you join us.

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

CNN: Overall, how much do Americans support the military actions in Afghanistan?

NEWPORT: We see no drop off in the very high levels of support that we have been registering for the military action. It's quite interesting. Right after the September 11 attacks, we found a very high number of Americans supporting the idea of military retaliation, and those levels of support really haven't wavered in all of the time since. About nine out of 10 Americans tell us they support the military action in Afghanistan.

CNN: Has the start of the military war changed President Bush's approval ratings at all?

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NEWPORT: No. Again, his extraordinarily high job approval ratings have remained high very consistently since September 11. We have measured his job approval rating five times since the 11th, and his average across those five has been 88 percent. As of this past weekend in our CNN/USA Today Gallup poll, his rating was right on that average, at 88 percent. Again, I can't emphasize enough how extraordinary these ratings are. Only a few times in the last 60 years has an American president gotten a job approval rating in the 80 percent, plus or minus, range.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why do you say [Bush's ratings] are extraordinary? You seem to be surprised and why?

NEWPORT: That's a good question. I'm not surprised, I guess, in the sense that we have always found at least some rally effect when the U.S. is challenged internationally. But I use the word "extraordinary" simply because this very high level has been rarely reached by any president, and also because we have well over a month now with no sign of those ratings beginning to go down. Sociologically, it's the case of an external threat to a social system increasing internal solidarity. In other words, when a country finds itself having to take concerted action against an enemy, the usual partisan differences which come into play when we ask people to rate their leaders, disappears. On many of our measures, we have historically high numbers. Trust in government is up significantly. Approval of Congress is as high as we have ever seen it. Even ratings of other leaders in government are extremely high.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you break down your polls as to what kind of military support, as in special forces strikes or all out military campaign?

NEWPORT: Yes. In our polling and other polling we've done quite a bit of testing of American's feelings about different types of actions. Support for the use of ground troops specifically is slightly lower than the overall support for military action, but still high. It's 80 percent. We gave Americans a choice this past weekend about the use of ground troops, and found that about half of those who approve of using ground troops would go so far as to approve more widespread ground troop action, including taking over areas in Afghanistan for an indefinite period of time. The rest say they support ground troops, but in the more limited in-and-out fashion that we've been told about so far.

In previous polling, we found that Americans continue to support the concept of ground troops even if we say there could be hundreds and hundreds of American casualties. Our bottom line is that we just find that the American public basically is saying that the U.S. should do whatever it takes in retaliation for September 11.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Newport, have any of your latest polls dealt with the current economy and if so what is the outcome. Do most people feel a recession is imminent?

NEWPORT: We have looked very carefully over the last month at all of the consumer confidence data we could find. One point quickly became clear, and that is that consumer confidence did not drop as a result of September 11. In fact, in some measures, it actually improved. Some of the interpretation of what happened was misleading because immediately prior to September 11, consumer confidence had been dropping rapidly. So we have a situation with fairly low levels of consumer confidence, but our analysis suggests that that's not because of September 11.

If anything, it's created a small rally around the economy. There's been no change in the number of Americans who think the country is in a recession over the last month. The percentage of Americans who think the economy is getting better has actually increased in two polls we conducted after the 11, compared to polling conducted just before the 11. Still, I want to emphasize that Americans are not rosy about the economy now, and weren't in August and early September. It's just that we haven't seen the rapid deterioration that some economists predicted. Indeed, investor optimism about the stock market, based on a poll we just released, is actually up significantly this month.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think Bush's ratings will drop if the war effort drags on?

NEWPORT: That's a good question, and one that I'm often asked. We just cannot predict. There simply isn't a historical situation enough like this one to be able to tell at all. Clearly, Bush the elder's job approval ratings fell fairly quickly after the Persian Gulf War, but in that case, the war was over, and it was the economy that was hurting him. LBJ's ratings in the Viet Nam war actually stayed fairly robust, even after major commitments of U.S. troops, until they began to slide going into 1968. But here we have a situation where U.S. soil has been attacked, and I think it's just a totally new ball game. What we will be talking about in terms of the public's perceptions of President Bush in six months is completely dependent on a whole host of factors that we simply can't predict.

CHAT PARTICIPANTS: Do you use online polling? Do you conduct polls in other countries?

NEWPORT: We at Gallup do not use online polling to represent the general population. We actually do quite a bit of online polling for some of our business customers, when there is a known database of those with e-mail addresses. Even today, we still have more than 40 percent of Americans who rarely if ever go online. And statistically we simply feel we're not in a position to try to generalize to the total population with an online sample, when a sizable percent of the target population has a zero probability of falling into our sample. The Gallup organization, based here in the United States, does have affiliates in a number of countries that conduct polls, and when they do, we certainly report them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have you done a poll on the public's fear of biochemical warfare?

NEWPORT: Yes, this weekend we spent a good deal of time in our poll measuring American's reactions to the anthrax situation. Our bottom line conclusion is that we find no signs of widespread panic or anything even close to it. A quite small percent of Americans tell us they are very worried that they personally could be exposed to anthrax. An almost negligible number of Americans told us they have rushed out to buy antibiotics or try to get vaccines. That's despite some media reports which might suggest otherwise. It's not that Americans are complacent. In fact, half of the country says it's likely that there will be a more sustained anthrax attack. But the vast majority of the country is going about their business as usual, and we found a sizable percentage have confidence that the country can handle it, even if there is a major anthrax outbreak. By the way, the majority of Americans approve of the House of Representatives decision to shut down for a few days.

CNN: What do people think about the humanitarian aid the U.S. is sending to Afghanistan?

NEWPORT: Most Americans say that the U.S. and its allies are doing about all they should at this point in terms of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. In fact, 20 percent say the U.S. is doing too much, while only 12 percent say the U.S. is doing too little. I should point out that our polling from a week ago showed very importantly that Americans make a clear distinction between the people of Afghanistan, and Muslims more generally, and terrorists leaders and the Taliban government. Americans have a favorable opinion of Muslims, the people of Afghanistan, and Arabs. At the same time, in the same poll, Americans tell us they have overwhelmingly negative opinions of the Taliban government and Osama bin Laden.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Newport, does it appear at all that the support for the president and the economy could be driven by patriotism?

NEWPORT: Oh yes. There's absolutely no question that we are experiencing a patriotic rally effect which drives Americans to be more supportive of a variety of people and institutions involved with their government. As I mentioned earlier, in times of crisis, the members of a social system find it important to come together behind their leadership, because those leaders have such important roles to play. So, there's no question that even when we ask people to rate the president on something like the economy, he is going to get higher ratings now than he would have prior to the 11th.

CNN: Any final thoughts or interesting info to share with us today?

NEWPORT: One other thing I would point out, indirectly I think emphasizing the importance of scientific polling, relates to gun ownership. We have seen media reports of Americans rushing to their local gun stores after the 11th to arm themselves. I remember seeing one report where a gun store owner said he'd been flooded with people desperate to buy guns. But our polling shows absolutely no change in gun ownership across the country. As of about a week ago, four out of 10 Americans told us they had a gun in the household, and that's virtually unchanged from a year ago.

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

NEWPORT: As always, I appreciate the insightful questions from the audience, and I look forward to being back with you.

Frank Newport joined via telephone from Princeton, NJ. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Tuesday, October 23, 2001.


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