Public Opinion

I. Myth of Isolationist Public

A. Policymakers (executive and legislative) and journalists believe that after the Cold War, the public (a majority) has become isolationist

1.   Want to disengage from world affairs

2.   Reluctant to have the US remain the world leader

3.   Oppose multilateralism

4.   Do not want to make altruistic sacrifices

B. Public opinion polling does not support these views; it contradicts them.

1.   Support for "active involvement” unchanged

2.   Belief in multilateralism and UN strong

3.   Highly supportive of foreign aid

C. Critiques of Kull & Destler Misreading the Public

1.   polls are worthless

2.   I don't believe it

3.   hypothetical opinions differ from actual choices

D. Why the Myth Persists

1.   Congress listens to the vocal public, not public opinion

2.   Activist groups are still committed to other policies (vocal public)

3.   Intensity of public not strong v. intensity of activists

4.   Media sees Congress as 'mirror' of public opinion

5.   Bias of anecdotal evidence

6.   Already believe the public is ignorant

7.   Many officials and FPIG hold different views that public

8.   Genuine isolationists like the myth

E. Case: Somalia

1.   Conventional wisdom: public opposition to high casualties led to the pullout

2.   While the public favored withdrawals when administration & Congress did, they continued to approve of the mission in general.

3.   Major drops in support for the missions occurred before the US sustained heavy casualties.


II. What Does the Public Know and Believe?

A. Myth of Volatile Public (Almond-Lippman Consensus)

1.   Public is 'moody'

2.   Lacks consistent or structured beliefs

B. Rational Public (B. Page & R. Shapiro)

1.   Volatile public finding was incorrect

2.   Public has consistent preferences; stable views; responsive in consistent ways

3.   Public opinion is collectively stable, structured and responsive to information

C. Public Opinion Is Complex

Public support was strong in 1965-67, with a majority favoring US involvement and a majority in April 1966 (75%) saying the US should blockade NV harbors.

But support was equally strong to turn the ground war over to SV with: 71% favoring this in Nov 1966, 73% in April 1967, 77%in Feb 1968 (after Tet Offensive)

A majority did not favor immediate withdrawal.

D. General Ignorance, but Can Follow Cues

1.   "Don't Know's" are common

2.   Those polled often lack basic facts:

In 1964, in one poll, only 38% of people knew that the Soviet Union was not part of NATO;

In 1980s, it took almost 2 years before a majority of those polled knew that the US was backing the rebels in Nicaragua.

3.   Cognitive Misers; no need to accumulate information

4.   Responds to international changes:

After the outbreak the Korean War in June 1950, a majority v. a minority of the public favored rearming Germany (44% to 62%). This preceded the Sep. 1950 annoucement by the Truman administration to do so.

5.   Take cues from experts to form opinions

III. How Does Public Opinion Influence US foreign policy?

A. Congress and Presidents are senstive to public opinion

1.   JFK, LBJ, RMN all developed increasingly extensive polling operations

2.   By Nixon, over 233 private polls were conducted costing $3.9 million (1994 dollars)

3.   Evidence of impact on policy is still mixed; little direct evidence that LBJ followed polls as opposed to expert advise

B. In statistical studies, we see policy shift following public opinion changes

1.   Once Nixon began withdrawals, data shows that a 1% rise in opinion that withdrawal was too slow yielded an increase (488 more) in troops witdrawn a month later.

2.   Study of US defense spending:

For every 1% change in support for (or opposition to) increased spending there is about a $0.33 billion increase (or decrease) in defense spending.

C. Precise causal mechanism is unclear

1.   Do politicians ‘read’ public opinion? Does Congress create pressure on executive via responses to ‘loud’ constituents

2.   Are gov official responding to the same trends that public observes (e.g., increase in Soviet defense spending prompted rise in US spending)

3.   Matters for understanding the CNN Effect:

- is public interest generating gov. response?

- or is media generating public interest?

- does media create public interest, or reflect what public prefers?

- is gov. anticipating change in PO, or genuinely interested in these changes?

4. Little evidence that CNN effect exists

- gov action precedes media coverage

- media follows gov't role

- public attention increases with media coverage, and observers draw a spurious correlation

IV. How Does the Government Educate, or Manipulate, Public Opinion

A. Realist Theory of Presidenial Leadership

1.   Realists believe that president had an obligation to lead the public in supporting foreign policy endeavors.

2.   Without such leadership, support for US action abroad would weaken

3.   Example: JFK sought to lead the public during his 1960 presidential campaign to support foreign aid; used polls to assemble package of programs that public would respond to favorably.

B. Public will follow president at times.

1.   In 1964, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, only 42% of the public supported US troop deployments in Vietnam. After the deployments, a majority backed them.

2.   Only 7% of Americans supported US invasion of Cambodia before Nixon ordered it, when 50% approved of the policy.

3.   69% of the public opposed US intervention in Panama in 1989, before Bush ordered the invasion in December 89.

C. Rally 'Round the Flag Effect

1.   President's job approval ratings tend to improve following a use of force

2.   Public is "pretty prudent" about the use of force

* One study looking at 38 uses of force and so-called displays of force between 1950 and 1988 found that the rally effect was stronger when the intervention was intended to deter or restrain actions by another state than when the intervention was aimed at altering internal conditions in another country.

* The study found that when a use of force was reported on the front page of The New York Times the presidential approval rating rose 6% more than when the event was inside the paper.

* The relatively slight effect was evidence that the public "pretty prudent" about presidential uses of force.

* An early study found that the higher a president's approval ratings, the more likely the president was to use force.

* Others found that poor economic indicators predict presidential use of force. In the 1949-1994 period, Reps presidents were more likely to use force when unemployment was high and Dems when inflation was high. Other studies have confirmed the role of unemployment, especially.

C. Fear of Presidential Manipulation

1.   Because of information asymmetries and secrecy, president can withhold information or mislead the public to gain support behind policies

2.   LBJ fails to disclose all facts around the Gulf of Tonkin incident

3.   During the 1990-91 Gulf War, Bush adm found that public was very concerned about possibility that Iraq might develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, it was the only topic in Nov 1990 that a majority (54%) believed justified an attack on Iraq. Within a week, the Bush adm emphasized this heavily.

4.   Clinton Administration twice used force timed near politically embarrassing events:

Aug 98 Airstrikes

Following the 7 August 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 12 US citizens and 250 Africans, the Clinton ordered airstrikes on 20 August on a chemical factory in Sudan and alleged terrorist training camps in Afghanistan (This was three days after the president's quasi-apology for the Lewinsky affair). Bucking the usual trend, Clinton's approval ratings fell from 66% to 61% after the airstrikes.

Dec. 98 Airstrikes

Clinton's approval rating rose by 9% following airstrikes against Iraq that ended a hours after the House impeached him.