On Tuesday, May 19, a new Democracy Corps poll was released by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. The poll included an in-depth examination of the American public’s views on the nuclear weapons policies of President Obama. Key findings from the poll ought to be taken into consideration by political activists and policy analysts.
The words we use to talk about the issues we care about can have an enormous impact on public opinion. The poll shows that while there is widespread support for Obama’s nuclear policies, Americans harbor doubt about the “nuclear weapons free world” formulation. This formulation, which is extremely popular among disarmament activists, may not always be the best way to communicate with the public at large unless it is made clear that we want to “take steps on the path” to a world without nukes.
If it appears at all like we are talking about unilateral U.S. disarmament, the American public gets freaked out and may reject things such as the START follow-on treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Were such failures to occur, we would never forgive ourselves if the root cause was that we were not willing to vary our message depending on our audience.
Below is the poll’s analysis of public opinion on Obama’s nuclear weapons strategy.
On April 5, in a major speech in Prague, President Obama outlined a new nuclear weapons policy and strategy for combating nuclear proliferation, as part of a broader objective of moving toward “a world without nuclear weapons.” Voters strongly back this initiative as well, with 58 percent of likely voters saying they approve of Obama’s job performance on “America’s policies on nuclear weapons,” and an even higher 68 percent supporting the new Obama nuclear policy once it is described in the survey.
Yet voters have real reservations about the president’s over-arching goal of “a world without nuclear weapons,” and the survey suggests that Obama actually depresses public support for his policy somewhat by invoking that idealistic goal. A strong 63 to 32 percent majority of likely voters say that “eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world is not realistic or good for America’s security” (rejecting the alternative statement, “it should be America’s goal to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world”). Most of those who doubt this goal do so strongly (43 out of the 63 percent). Opposition to the president’s long-term vision crosses party lines, with even a 59 to 39 percent majority of Democrats objecting to this goal.
A controlled experiment suggests that invoking the “zero option” actually undermines support for the president’s strategy – even among his own supporters. A 66 percent majority supports the president’s nuclear policy when it is described as pursuing “the goal of a world without nuclear weapons;” but an even stronger 71 percent backs the policy when that phrase is omitted. Interestingly, support drops among both Democrats and Republicans when the “world without nuclear weapons” goal is invoked (although support from independents rises). In 2008 swing states, the net approval margin for the policy is 21 points higher when framed without the call for “a world without nuclear weapons.” Thus, the “zero option” emphasis garners no extra net support, while – as the survey reveals – it provides fodder for relatively potent Republican attacks.
The survey suggests that Obama may generate much stronger support with the kind of messages he used on this issue during the presidential campaign, when he said his goal was, “to keep nuclear weapons and nuclear materials away from terrorists.” Voters sees such a possibility as the number one threat facing America at this point – and that priority is shared by Democrats, Republicans and independents – while opinion formers and younger voters see a related dynamic as the biggest threat, the nuclear weapons programs in states like North Korea and Iran.