Terrorism Fears Rise Post-Paris; Most Back Force, Oppose Refugees (POLL)

Terrorism fears near a post-9/11 high in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

November 20, 2015, 2:00 PM

— -- With terrorism fears near a post-9/11 high in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll, majorities of Americans back increased use of military force, including ground forces, against the Islamic State, and more than half oppose admitting Mideast refugees to the United States.

Seventy-three percent support increased U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and 60 percent back more ground forces, double the level of support for ground forces from summer 2014. One reason: Eighty-one percent see a major terrorist attack in the United States in the near future as likely, a level of anxiety that has been higher just once since 9/11.

Fifty-four percent oppose admitting refugees from Syria and other Mideast countries, while 43 percent are in favor. Opposition in part reflects skepticism about the U.S. government’s ability to screen out terrorists; 52 percent are dubious, and they’re especially likely to oppose entry.

That said, if refugees are admitted, an overwhelming 78 percent of Americans say all should be considered equally, without regard to their religion. Just 18 percent favor special consideration for Christians, proposed by Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz.

See PDF with full results here.

Perhaps most fundamentally, 59 percent of Americans in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, say the United States is at war with radical Islam, which is little changed from a poll earlier this year but another indication of the public’s mindset in the post-9/11 world.


The survey indicates a range of effects on public attitudes in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. Among them:

The number who expect a serious attack in the United States (81 percent, as noted) is up by 8 percentage points from a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters 11 days before the Paris attacks. It has been higher just once in eight previous polls since December 2001: 85 percent in July 2005, after terrorist attacks on the London transit system.

Attitudes have tipped further in favor of security over privacy rights. Seventy-two percent say it’s more important for the United States to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that means intruding on personal privacy, than for it not to intrude on privacy, if that limits its ability to investigate possible threats. The public’s emphasis on threat reduction over privacy is up by 15 points from its post-9/11 low in July 2013.

Fifty-four percent disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the threat of terrorism in general, up 9 points since January to the worst rating on terrorism of his career. Fifty-seven percent disapprove of his handling of the Islamic State in particular. “Strong” disapproval on both is quite high, 43 and 46 percent, respectively.

Fewer than half of Americans, 45 percent, are confident in the government’s ability to prevent further terrorist attacks in the United States. That’s near the average since 9/11, and helps explain the level of public concern about an attack occurring.

Not all views have changed substantially. In a Fox News poll of registered voters in January, 56 percent said they thought the United States was at war with radical Islam. A similar number says so now, 59 percent of all adults (and 60 percent of registered voters).


In terms of a response to the Paris attacks, 73 percent of Americans say the United States should play a role in military action against ISIS. Likely given the attacks’ locus on French soil, however, those who favor action say by more than 2-1 that the United States should take a supporting role in responding, not the leading role.

At 73 percent, support for increased U.S. air strikes against ISIS is similar to its level just more than a year ago, having risen sharply after the ISIS killings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Fifty-two percent “strongly” support more air strikes, a continued high level.

Backing for the increased use of U.S. ground forces, for its part, is sharply higher now than in results of a similar question in June 2014, before the ISIS threat was as well established. Then, just 30 percent favored the use of U.S. ground forces against “the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.” Now, as noted, 60 percent favor the increased use of ground forces against ISIS; 33 percent support it strongly, also double the level from early summer last year.

There’s some preference for “a large number” of U.S. ground forces; that’s backed by 55 percent of those who support sending ground forces at all, which translates to one-third of all adults. An additional 25 percent of all Americans support some increased use of ground forces, but not a large number.


Many of these results are influenced by threat perception. Americans who see a terrorist attack in the United States as very likely are especially likely to support the increased use of ground forces against ISIS and to oppose admitting Syrian and other Mideast refugees.

In one striking example, among those who see an attack as very likely, 73 percent oppose admitting refugees. Opposition declines to 49 percent of those who think a major attack is somewhat likely, and to just 28 percent of those who see it as less likely. Indeed, among those who see an attack as less than somewhat likely, support for admitting refugees rises to 67 percent.

Similarly, support for increased use of ground forces peaks at 69 percent of those who see an attack on U.S. soil as very likely. That compares with 59 percent among those who think an attack is somewhat likely and 47 percent among those who see an attack as less likely.

Further, among those who see an attack as likely, Obama’s approval rating for handling terrorism plummets.


In another example of the role of threat perception, 52 percent of Americans, as noted, are not confident that the United States can identify and screen out possible terrorists among Syrian and other refugees; 75 percent in this group oppose admitting refugees at all. Among those who are very or somewhat confident in U.S. screening, by contrast, 65 percent support admitting them.

The survey’s question on religious preference noted that ISIS has targeted a range of people : Christians, moderate Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Yazidis, among others. Respondents were asked whether, to the extent that it accepts refugees, the United States should give equal consideration to all who’ve been persecuted by ISIS, regardless of their religion, or should give special preference to Christians.

As mentioned, 78 percent favor equal consideration, while 18 percent see grounds for special consideration for Christians. The latter view peaks among evangelical white Protestants and among Republicans, but even in these groups, at just 37 and 30 percent, respectively.

Political differences

There are differences among political groups on other issues, but many of those in degree, not direction. Just more than six in 10 Republicans and independents say the United States is at war with radical Islam; that declines to 53 percent of Democrats, fewer, but still a majority. Support for increased air strikes ranges from 84 percent of Republicans to 65 percent of Democrats; for more ground forces, from 73 to 52 percent in these same groups.

There are differences, as well, in views of Obama and the government’s effectiveness. Fifty-five percent of Democrats are confident in the government’s ability to prevent another attack; 61 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents, are not. And in the sharpest division, 69 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s handling of terrorism. Sixty-four percent of independents, and 85 percent of Republicans, disapprove.


This ABC News-Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Nov. 16-19, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-23-36 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y. See details on the survey’s methodology here.

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