Power Ball! Lotto Tickets here! Signs in the windows of 7-11's and gas stations lure people into spending literally billions of dollars on lottery tickets and most people will say they win nothing but the joy of playing. Time to consider selling Homeland Security lottery chances at convenience stores? Perhaps, if a new poll by Zogby International done exclusively for American Demographics, is any indication.
The survey asked how Americans define national security, and what, if anything, they are willing to pay for it. There's good news in this, perhaps, for Republican soothsayers looking to November, and possibly unpleasant news for Democrats and John Kerry. And there are two words that both campaigns will zero in on: Hispanics and education.
Here's the short form. Americans don't want to bring back the draft. Less than 10 percent would support that; they're happier volunteering for neighborhood watch programs. One-fifth would be willing to accept a tax increase to pay for more homeland security more than some analysts expected, and less than others had hoped. Two-thirds gave a resounding no to a 10 cent per gallon tax on gas to pay for more defense. And wait until you see who are most willing to give up civil liberties in the name of safety.
Now, it's too easy, and unfair, to say that Americans say one thing about the importance of homeland security and the need to send our military abroad, and then do another when they have to open their pocketbooks. The attacks of September 11 are three years old, and to an extent, have become almost a distant memory, says John Zogby, whose firm conducted the poll. Constant news about missteps or misstatements prior to and during the war in Iraq led to the public being skeptical about spending money on military issues at least segments of the public.
Ben Wattenberg, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of a forthcoming book, Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation will Shape our Future, says that any poll on what Americans would sacrifice for security is premature at this time. Wait until there's a clear threat that people can see here, and these questions will become moot.
One hopes he's right. Roughly 29 percent of respondents rank national security as the most important issue that would affect their vote this fall; 32 percent name the economy. But those groups who largely indicated increased security as their top issue are also among the groups least likely to want to pay more for security in the form of taxes. That includes nearly half of Republicans, and about a third of whites, Southerners, born-again Christians, residents of rural areas, college grads and people with household income of $75,000.
Presidential election expert Steffen Schmidt of Iowa State University agrees with Wattenberg's assessment on one level. All of these polls are now subject to misinterpretation, because looming behind them [and often not in the conscious world of people who are polled] is the pervasive concern with terrorism, says Schmidt. It wanes and swells publicly with news stories. Now it is swelling mightily with the 9/11 hearings and about the chilling, continued threat.
Schmidt, who's followed Iowa's presidential caucuses for years, observes that the poll was conducted during the last week of May 2004, before the administration confirmed plans to recruit 200,000 new troops for the armed forces, and before the highly publicized murders of more American civilians in the Middle East by terrorists.
The [answers are] very informative about the position of people, and the direct or indirect link to security and terrorism. That's a measure for the moment of who gets elected, Schmidt adds.
Still, concern about security could go sky high as new plots are announced, as in the heart of a shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio, says Schmidt. That could prompt popular support of more money for military and security forces. As for the election, Schmidt says, All in all, terrorism is probably still Bush's issue to lose.
Most respondents, even Republicans, defined homeland security as securing borders, ports and other places of entry to the U.S. Unexpectedly, the global war on terrorism, was the No. 2 definition.
The economy still ranked highest of the issues likely to affect voters among the 900-plus people polled, though it only beat homeland security by 3 percentage points. The economy's importance could wane if there is a measurable increase in jobs and the stock market belches upward again.
Only half as many people thought education or health care were the most important issues. Schmidt calls this bad news for Kerry, because he has been building themes on these and yet among likely voters they are not on the radar.
However, demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution disagrees. He says the fact that education and health care were ranked 2, and 3 by large portions of the respondents suggests that education may be a sleeper issue Kerry can grasp.
One key word to come from this poll is Hispanics. This group of voters is being heavily targeted by both presidential campaigns, and based on this poll, Schmidt says, Memo to Bush and Kerry: Talk to Latino voters about how you will NOT raise taxes on them!
Indeed, the largest group of anti-tax respondents by far were Hispanics: some 81 percent said they were against tax increases for homeland security. And 21 percent of Hispanics ranked tax increases higher as an election issue than the economy or national security.
The GOP hopes to win 40 percent of Hispanic votes nationally. But if they get 37 percent to 38 percent, this could have a significant impact, Zogby says, especially in New Mexico and Colorado. Hispanics include a growing number of born-again Christians who are conservative generally, and as a group are organized voters.
Hispanics are the most dynamic voter block this year, says Zogby, and when you focus on key states, that becomes huge. They are not a slam-dunk Democratic group anymore, he adds. Hispanics agree with Democrats on issues, but with Republicans on values. When it came to voting, a substantial number told me [in Hispanic focus groups] that they see the GOP as mean, he says, referring to immigration and border security.
That theme may explain another interesting split in the poll: what people were willing to cede for national security. The four main choices, almost evenly divided, were volunteering for neighborhood watches, paying increased taxes, giving up some personal liberty and pressuring the government to move revenues from domestic programs to security. Reinstating the draft came in at only 8 percent. Hispanics and African Americans were among those least interested in giving up freedoms. But, Frey notes, Those most likely to surrender civil liberties, such as agreeing to a national ID and security screening are least likely to be screened: Whites, Republicans, older people and those making more than $75,000.
Still, personal liberty is making a comeback, says Zogby, who polled this issue extensively following the 9/11 attacks. If there is indeed a national character, it's not our cuisine, it's not the NBA or Hollywood, says Zogby, it's our rights. It appeared that in addition to the damage to the economy after 9/11, we gave up a sense of who we were, he says, but new polls, including this one, suggest that we're almost back to where we were before 9/11. We've come back to our character.
Part of our character is being cheap. There was a clear rejection of a 10 cent gas tax by every subgroup. But filling an SUV tank each week might only cost a driver an additional 10 bucks for national security that's half of what some surveys show unemployed people drop for lotto tickets. But Zogby notes that it may be a bad time to ask this question because of high gas prices and people scaling back vacations because of the price at the pump.
So what will people give up for more security? The environment. Almost 30 percent, the largest group, said they'd urge the government to take money away from environmental programs. The next highest-ranked sacrificial victim was public roads and transportation.
Two-fifths of Republicans, born-again Christians and people with incomes less than $25,000 would take revenues away from environmental programs. Those with incomes higher than $75,000 were willing to take money away from health care and public schools to pay for stronger borders and safer airports.
Finally, respondents ranked the areas of the world where they thought U.S. security interests lay. Iraq was ranked first by 41 percent and another 17 percent chose the Middle East, and those two tended to lead other areas. The Far East, North Korea, China, Indonesia and the former Soviet bloc, including Russia, came in last. This may be partly due, Frey says, to politicians and the media downplaying problems for which we have no obvious answers.