Democracy & Elections

Confidence in Government on National Security Matters: September 2018

Mieke Eoyang, Ryan Pougiales, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, October 25, 2018, 5:09 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, a bit belatedly, our data for the month of September 2018.

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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, a bit belatedly, our data for the month of September 2018. It includes perceptions about government institutions and about 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 Trend Down, Except for the President

From Sep. 25-27, 2018, we used Google Surveys to ask respondents the following questions about confidence in institutions:

In September, in a reversal from the two previous months, public confidence in the president on national security matters jumped up. The presidency was the only institution in which support increased since our previous month’s polling, in late August. On a scale of 1 (“No confidence”) to 5 (“High confidence”), the average score for each institution from highest to lowest was: 3.92 for the military, 3.20 for the intelligence community, 2.87 for the federal courts, 2.79 for the president and 2.54 for Congress.

Confidence in President Trump on national security in September was up from 2.71 in August. This despite the fact that a large plurality, 39 percent, still reported “no confidence” in Trump. The president's uptick may reflect waning public outrage after a damaging summer for him on national security matters—a summer which included the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, the passing of Sen. John McCain in August that put the incumbent’s national security record in stark relief, and the conviction of his former campaign chair Paul Manafort and plea agreement for his former personal attorney Michael Cohen. While a large gender gap persists on confidence in the president, 2.59 for women to 2.99 for men, the increase is comparable across genders in September. Consistent with past findings, confidence in the president on national security matters seems to track his support levels in other polls over time. The president’s low point in our polling came at the beginning of our surveys, when he measured in at 2.58 in July 2017. At that time, his approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average of his approval ratings was in the high thirties. The president’s confidence rating began creeping up, however, over the following months, as did his more general approval rating. It reached a high of 2.83 in June 2018—by which time his average approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average stood in the low forties. The president’s average approval rating has again improved over the last month, which tracks with our findings here.

The boost in public confidence in the president is noteworthy this month because it dropped for every other institution in our poll. The largest drop in confidence was in the courts, which fell from 2.95 to 2.87 this month. This fall tracked closely with Congress, which saw a drop in confidence from 2.62 to 2.54. Confidence in the intelligence community dropped moderately, after a record high last month, to 3.20 on our scale. And confidence in the military, while high in absolute terms, saw a small drop from 3.94 to 3.92. With all of these institutions, however, the broad story over time has been remarkable stability. The trend lines with all of these institutions ebbs and flows but is mostly flat.

Confidence in the Republican Party on National Security Spikes

Republicans’ advantage on national security had inched up in our previous month’s polling, despite the president’s weak numbers, but this advantage spiked this month in one of the two partisan questions we ask respondents. Curiously, Republicans’ advantage narrowed in the second of the two questions. Despite this contradictory movement, Republicans’ absolute advantage on national security persists despite the apparent Democratic advantage in generic-ballot polling.

The first question concerns confidence in the parties to handle national security matters generically. On that question, in September, average confidence in the Republican Party’s ability to protect U.S. national security stood at 2.81, and average confidence in the Democratic Party’s ability stood at 2.61. Both parties are perceived more favorably than is Congress as a whole, which has an average confidence score of 2.54. This reflects a nominal decrease in support (from 2.63 to 2.61) for the Democratic Party since we asked this question in late August, while support for the Republican Party jumped from 2.73 to 2.81 for the month. This marks Republicans’ largest confidence advantage since May 2018. The broad message here is that the traditional Republican advantage on national security messaging is very sticky with the public and has not been deeply disrupted by Trump. But in periods of relative strength for the president on national security matters, this may supplement Republicans’ edge on the issue.

But in contrast to this first question, which shows a growing advantage for Republicans on national security, the results of our second question—Which of the parties will do a better job protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats?—narrowed some this month. On this question, Republicans do retain a healthy advantage when respondents are asked to choose between the parties or options of “neither” or “don’t know.” When asked in this manner, 32 percent of respondents chose the Republican Party, while 22 percent chose the Democratic Party; 25 percent chose “don’t know,” and 20 percent chose “neither.” But while Democrats’ support held steady from August, Republicans’ support dropped two points. And while Republicans’ advantage is almost entirely driven by male respondents, it was with men that they lost support this month. Republican support with men dropped from 43 percent to 38 percent this month. Uncertain respondents are split between Democrats (51 percent) and Republicans (49 percent).

The bottom line, as the midterms approach, is that Democrats still trail Republicans substantially on the question of which party Americans trust to defend the nation. But those people without formed views on this question are split evenly between the two parties.

As previous Third Way research has shown, when this “security gap” is large and salience is high, it can diminish Democrats’ prospects in elections. However, unlike recent past cycles, the salience of national security appears to be low right now, with some polls not even asking about terrorism or national security.

The Public Remains Uncertain About Intelligence Authorities

In late September 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?” There was an increase in the average response since August (from 3.09 to 3.14 in September). As in all previous months that we’ve asked this question, respondents lean slightly 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 (45 percent) is a neutral 3 on our scale. And 73 percent of respondents chose one of the middle three options, not either 1 or 5.

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

Last 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 September, confidence in the president on these topics ticked up from the previous month but remains middling on our scale—at 2.57 for Iran, 2.53 for North Korea and 2.77 for terrorism. The largest increase in confidence was on terrorism, from 2.67 to 2.77, which is an all-time high mark for the president. These numbers have tended to move together, reflecting an overall sense of confidence in the president’s handling of national security. But interestingly, confidence in the president’s handling of each of these issues continues to remain below the level of average confidence in the president’s handling of national security generally (2.79).

Confidence in Special Counsel Mueller Increases Nominally

As we have since October 2017, we once again asked the public about its level of confidence in Robert Mueller’s “fairness and objectivity” at the end of September, and the average score was a 2.94 on our scale, a nominal increase (from 2.93) in August.

Confidence in the Mueller investigation has tended to spike when the special counsel indicts people or reaches plea agreements. This summer, however, despite the first trial to result from the special counsel’s investigation, the prosecution of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, concluding with convictions, there was little increase in support for Mueller. Similarly, the guilty plea of Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, also appears to have had little impact on confidence in Mueller.

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

While the military enjoys the highest level of public confidence of any government institution we ask about (a 3.92 on our scale), confidence in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria is markedly lower, with average confidence scores of 2.86 and 2.77, respectively. Public confidence in both conflicts decreased slightly from August to September. But as the trend line indicates, confidence in these military operations has wavered little since we began asking about these conflicts in November, a result that is perhaps explained by scant media attention toward these operations in recent months.


From Sep. 25-27, 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. 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.
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.

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