Democracy & Elections

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: January 2018

Mieke Eoyang, Ben Freeman, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, February 9, 2018, 1:00 PM

In July, 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 January.

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In July, 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 January. It includes perceptions about government institutions and the two major political parties’ handling of national security; the president’s handling of key national security issues; Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; ongoing military operations; and electronic surveillance issues.

Confidence in Institutions to Protect U.S. National Security Remains Stable

In the last week of January 2018, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

The results for January are fairly consistent with our polling from previous months, though there was a noteworthy drop in confidence in the intelligence community to protect U.S. national security. On a scale of 1 (“No confidence”) to 5 (“High confidence”), the average score for the intelligence community fell from 3.2 in December to 3.1 in January. While this might reflect public confidence in the intelligence community waning after repeated attacks by President Trump and other Republicans, the public remains much more confident in the intelligence community than in the president (average score 2.7), Congress (average score 2.5) and the federal courts (average score 2.9). In fact, of the institutions we asked respondents about, only the military (average score 3.9) earned a higher confidence rating than the intelligence community.

The Republican Party Continues to Hold an Advantage Over the Democratic Party on National Security

In January, average confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to protect U.S. national security was 2.7 and average confidence in the Democratic Party’s ability was 2.6. Both parties are perceived more favorably than Congress as a whole, which has an average confidence score of 2.5.

Republicans hold an advantage over Democrats on national security when respondents are asked about their confidence in each party separately, and the Republican advantage increases markedly when respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know.” When asked in this manner, 34.9 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, and 21.5 percent chose the Democratic Party. While the number of respondents selecting the Democratic Party remained unchanged since we asked this question in December, this is a nearly five-point gain for Republicans in just one month. Moreover, slightly more respondents chose “neither” (21.8 percent) or “don’t know” (21.7 percent) than chose the Democratic Party as doing a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats. Both “neither” and “don’t know” responses were much lower than in previous months, possibly indicating a shift to the Republican Party by previously undecided or ambivalent sections of the population.

Confidence Remains Low in the President’s Handling of Key National Security Issues

While confidence in the Republican Party on national security may be rising, this doesn’t appear to extend to confidence in President Trump’s handling of key national security issues, which remains low.

In November, 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 January, we once again found that confidence in the president on these topics remains extremely low. Confidence in the president’s handling of each of these issues is well below the level of average confidence in the president’s handling of national security (2.74), and that level was already low. Moreover, a near-majority of respondents report “no confidence” in the president’s ability to handle North Korea (48 percent) and Iran (47.8 percent).

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Holds Steady

Support for Special Counsel Robert Mueller tends to rise and fall with indictments emanating from his team. We first observed this pattern of increased support for Mueller in November, in polling before and after the Paul Manafort and Rick Gates indictments were made public. In late November and early December, we saw this pattern again in polls we conducted before and after the plea agreement with former national security adviser Michael Flynn was announced.

Our January poll was conducted before the release of a memo compiled by House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes alleging partisanship at the FBI. We saw a slight uptick in average confidence in Mueller, to 2.92 from 2.91 in December. Confidence in Mueller remains well above confidence in the president, Congress, the federal courts and either political party. Confidence in Mueller also remains extremely polarized, with 28.4 percent reporting “no confidence” in him and 26.4 percent reporting “high confidence” in him.

Confidence in Ongoing Military Operations Remains Well Below Confidence in the Military

Once again, the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we asked about. Yet while average confidence in the military ranked 3.9 on our scale, confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.9 and 2.8 respectively. This roughly one-point gap in confidence is similar to what we found in both November and December.


From Jan. 25-28, 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 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. 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.
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.

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