Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: February 2019

Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Ryan Pougiales, Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, March 20, 2019, 1:50 PM

In July 2017, we began a polling project to measure public confidence in government institutions on national security matters on an ongoing basis. This post provides our data for the month of February 2019.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

In July 2017, we began a polling project to measure public confidence in government institutions on national security matters on an ongoing basis. This post provides our data for the month of February 2019. It includes public perceptions of government institutions and of the two major political parties’ handling of national security; about the public’s comfort with intelligence authorities; about the president’s handling of key national security issues; about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; and about ongoing military operations.

Confidence in Institutions to Protect U.S. National Security Was Up in February

From Feb. 25 to Feb. 28, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

In February, confidence in institutions to protect U.S. national security increased, with the exception of the military, which fell by an insignificant amount this month. On a scale of 1 (“no confidence”) to 5 (“high confidence”), the average score for each institution, from highest to lowest, was: 3.87 for the military, 3.24 for the intelligence community, 2.90 for the federal courts, 2.80 for the president and 2.58 for Congress. The broad increase in confidence in institutions coincided with a return to relative normalcy in Washington, D.C., after the end of the 35-day government shutdown in late January.

This uptick in confidence across institutions may reflect a reversion to the mean after consecutive months of decreased confidence for several institutions. Average confidence in the president on national security increased from 2.70 in our January polling to 2.80 in February. This increase did not coincide with any notable national security achievements for the president, but this month’s survey was in the field immediately before the president’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Across other institutions, confidence in Congress increased from 2.45 to 2.58, the courts from 2.79 to 2.90, and the intelligence community from 3.17 to 3.24. Only the military saw a drop in its average confidence, but just marginally, from 3.89 to 3.87.

Confidence in the Republican Party Went Up This Month, and Republicans Expanded Their Head-to-Head Advantage over Democrats on National Security

In February, confidence in the Republican Party on national security increased for the first time in four months while confidence in Democrats dropped for the second month in a row. Average confidence in the Republican Party increased for the first time since October 2018, jumping from 2.70 to 2.81. By contrast, average confidence in the Democratic Party dropped in February, from 2.61 to 2.53. This difference in average confidence between the parties on national security, 2.81 for Republicans and 2.53 for Democrats, is the largest gap recorded in the history of this polling project. For the month, the public indicated higher average confidence in Congress as a whole on national security, at 2.58, than in the Democratic Party. The difference between institutional confidence and party confidence is notable, given the recent change in party control of the House of Representatives, resulting in the two parties sharing control of the branch.

Republicans’ advantage for our second question on partisanship and national security—“Which of the parties will do a better job protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?”—also expanded, with this margin increasing from seven to 10 points this month. On this question, respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know.” When asked in this manner, 34 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, while 23 percent chose the Democratic Party; 24 percent chose “don’t know,” and 19 percent chose “neither.”

The Public Remains Uncertain About Intelligence Authorities

In late February we once again asked respondents, “How comfortable are you with the powers of the U.S. intelligence community? Do intelligence agencies in your view have not enough authority or do they have too much authority?” The average response in February was a 3.00 on our scale. This is a shift in the direction of “not enough authority” from January, and it is the lowest score recorded for this question over the course of this polling project. But, as in all previous months, respondents still lean toward the intelligence community having too much authority. However, also as in all previous months, far and away the most common response to this question (43 percent) was a neutral 3 on our scale. And 72 percent of respondents chose one of the middle three options, not either 1 or 5. These numbers have been relatively stable in the period in which we have asked this question, ranging from a low of 3.00 to a high of 3.18 seemingly randomly. During this period, the country has not experienced notable intelligence failures, terrorist attacks or intelligence scandals. Indeed, in the previous month, the heads of all the intelligence agencies had testified before Congress and had offered assessments at odds with the White House’s characterizations of a number of issues. Yet, despite this, the confidence ratings are little changed. The stability of these numbers during such a period offers a good baseline against which to measure any changes if and when the political process suddenly lurches to consider either expanding or contracting intelligence authorities.

Confidence in the President’s Handling of Key National Security Issues Ticked Up in February

In November 2017, we began asking respondents how confident they were in the president’s ability to handle key national security issues, specifically with regard to Iran, North Korea and terrorism. In February, confidence in the president on these topics was 2.55 for Iran, 2.55 for North Korea and 2.74 for terrorism. All the scores are up from January, but all three fall below general confidence in the president on national security, which stands at 2.80. All three of these results are within the bounds we’ve seen for these questions. Two notable trends continue to persist on these national security issues: Respondents have higher confidence in the president on terrorism than on Iran or North Korea, and respondents’ confidence in Iran and North Korea, both nuclear proliferation challenges, is highly correlated.

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Inched Up in February

As we have since October 2017, we once again asked the public about its level of confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “fairness and objectivity” at the end of February. The average score was a 2.89 on our scale, which is a small increase from January’s results that showed an average confidence of 2.84. This score indicates that the public has middling confidence in Mueller, but more respondents have “no confidence” in Mueller (32 percent) than “high confidence” (27 percent). Women have slightly lower average confidence in Mueller than men; women’s average confidence was at 2.87, to 2.91 for men.

The results on this question over the course of this polling project are consistent with other public opinion efforts on the Mueller investigation. The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group conducted surveys on the Russia probe in May 2018 and January 2019, and results from both showed that just under 50 percent of voters had confidence in the probe’s “fairness.”

Confidence in Ongoing Military Operations Inched Up in February

While the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we ask about (a 3.87 on our scale), confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.89 and 2.77, respectively. These are small increases from our polling in January, a stretch of time that featured an insignificant decrease in confidence in the military generally. Notably, the president’s February 1 pronouncement, via Twitter, that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria did not have a significant impact on the public’s confidence in that conflict. In early March, after the completion of this month’s survey, the president reversed his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria. If current trends hold, this reversal will also not have a measurable impact on public confidence.

Our consistent findings of low public confidence in these conflicts corresponds with a recent poll from the Charles Koch Institute and Real Clear Politics, as well as a recent Eurasia Group Foundation poll, which found that Americans generally prefer to avoid military interventions.


From Feb. 25 to Feb. 28, we once again used Google Surveys, which is supporting this project with a large in-kind donation of access to its survey platform, to ask a variety of questions related to national security. Respondents are internet users age 18 and older who answer “surveywall” questions on websites that use Google Opinion Rewards for Publishers to access content. Surveys appear on a network of more than 1,500 sites, including USA Today and the Financial Times. For more information on Google Surveys’ methodology, including questions regarding sampling bias and inferred demographics, please see Google’s white paper on the topic. A follow-up paper from Katrina Sostek showed Google Surveys’ accuracy versus benchmark questions to be comparable to other online survey platforms, with some differences noted based on weighting schemes. Benjamin Wittes and Emma Kohse also discussed criticisms and advantages of the Google Surveys methodology at some length in this paper.

Mieke Eoyang is the vice president for the National Security Program at Third Way and a former professional staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Dr. Ben Freeman is the author of The Foreign Policy Auction and Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. He previously served as Deputy Director of the National Security Program at Third Way.
Ryan Pougiales is a senior political analyst at Third Way. Ryan completed his B.A. and M.A. in international studies at American University’s School of International Service.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare