Waco, Branch Davidians, and Changing Perceptions

Twenty-five years ago this week, federal and Texas state law officers laid siege to the Waco, TX Branch Davidian compound, where they believed cult members had been stockpiling weapons and children were being sexually abused. A fire broke out, leaving 76 dead and bringing critical scrutiny to the agencies involved.

At the time of the events in question, Americans were strongly supportive of the FBI’s handling of the problem. Over seven in ten in a Gallup poll on April 20 said that the FBI’s decision to pump tear gas into the compound was a responsible one. Only 11% in this poll thought the FBI should have waiter longer to act; most thought they had waited long enough (24%) or had in fact already waited too long (60%).

An ABC poll from April 21 found that 76% of the public blamed cult members for the shootout that started the incident in February, while just 12% blamed federal agents. Moreover, 86% believed that the fire that consumed the compound had been set by the Branch Davidians themselves.

But the story of polling around the Waco siege shows how public perceptions change with emerging narratives. During civil cases against the government, Branch Davidians made a number of claims about the conduct of law officials, most of which were found to be baseless. Nonetheless, the issues had been raised. In 1999, the public learned that incendiary devices had been used at the siege, despite FBI claims to the contrary, a development that led Janet Reno to call for an investigation into the FBI’s actions.

Public opinion shifted considerably. Approval of the FBI’s handling of the standoff dropped from 70% during the events to a low of 38% in October 1999.

Graph showing public opinion regarding FBI handling of standoff with Branch Davidians

Although 46% of Americans in a 1999 Harris poll said they thought the Branch Davidians had set the fire at the compound themselves, 27% thought the FBI had done it, and 27% didn’t know. A plurality still felt that the blame for the outcome of the siege lay at the feet of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, but some of the public blamed the FBI or Janet Reno, and a substantial proportion didn’t know where the blame should fall. In addition, while just 19% of the public in an ABC/Washington Post poll in April 1993 said that the violence in Waco could have been avoided, 38% thought so when CBS fielded this question in October 1999.

Graph showing public opinion on whom to blame for Branch Davidian shootout

Graph showing public opinion as to whether Branch Davidian crisis could have been avoided

The Danforth Report, the result of a large-scale investigation into the government’s role in the events at Waco, was released in November 2000. The report held that government incendiary devices were not indeed responsible for the fire, which both witness accounts and evidence suggested had been set by the Branch Davidians themselves. The Danforth Report also cited forensic evidence against the claim that the law officials had shot at the compound and argued that the use of military forces had been limited enough to avoid violation of Posse Comitatus.

Whether this report shifted public opinion again toward a more positive view of the government’s role cannot be determined. The last major public poll to ask about Waco had been completed one month prior.

Irish Peace and the Good Friday Agreement of

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and US President Bill Clinton

The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998 was an historic moment in the long Irish peace process. In it the status of Northern Ireland, its relationship to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and the future process for disarmament of paramilitary groups and the political unification of the island were codified and outlined. The public in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly approved the Agreement’s provisions in referenda, and it went into effect in December 1999.

US involvement in the peace process was a signature part of President Clinton’s foreign policy, highlighted by his November 1995 speech in Belfast and an historic photo-op handshake with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. But the US public didn’t see Clinton’s role as central. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll after the agreement, 9% gave Clinton a great deal of credit for the agreement, 14% quite a bit, and 42% some. The public was split on the prospects for lasting peace between Protestants and Catholics in the North, with 40% believing they would achieve it and 44% saying they would not.

In a July Gallup survey, 30% sympathized more with the Catholics and 16% with the Protestants, with 8% saying both and 22% neither. Half of those surveyed wanted to see the North unite with the South versus 17% who wanted it to remain part of the United Kingdom. This poll also found Americans divided on the prospects for future peace, with 37% optimistic and 49% pessimistic. At the year’s end, a Gallup/Chicago Council survey showed that the public was still not entirely positive about Clinton’s role. Just 8% rated Clinton’s handling of the Northern Ireland situation in general as excellent, 25% good, 29% fair, and 15% poor.

The US public still considered the process important in 2002, when a Gallup poll about the situation in the North found 24% called it a very important US foreign policy goal and 46% somewhat important. Following the disarmament of various groups including the IRA and other political agreements, the peace process was considered complete in 2007.

50 Years After

events of 1968

The year that rocked the world and changed the United States forever, 1968 is remembered as a time of societal divisions and cultural shifts. Following on the heels of the Summer of Love, the year began with the capture of a U.S. ship by North Koreans and American losses from the Tet Offensive campaign, an unexpectedly large and well-coordinated North Vietnamese action against the South Vietnamese allied forces. Then the country was roiled by the assassinations of first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert F. Kennedy. Throughout the year, workers’ strikes and protests in the streets and at the Olympics kept the nation’s attention on the war and the battle for civil rights. A contentious presidential election was marked by Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, riots at the Democratic convention, and George Wallace’s divisive Independent Party campaign.

For all the discord and tribulation that 1968 brought, however, there were spots of light. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, otherwise known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law, protecting Americans from discrimination in the purchase or rental of homes. The musical creativity of the 1960s was in full force, with groundbreaking album releases from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones. And the year ended with an awe-inspiring achievement as Apollo 8 took the first human beings out of Earth’s orbit and around its moon.

Over the coming months, the Roper Center will use its rich historical collection of opinion polls to explore how the public responded to these events of fifty years ago. Watch this space for highlights from the dataset collection and iPOLL-based reviews of public opinion from the year that changed everything.

Tensions with North Korea: The 1968 Pueblo Incident

events of 1968

Over the last few months, tensions between the United States and North Korea have been high. Fifty years ago, the two countries faced a crisis that found nearly half of the US public expecting war.

On January 23, 1968, the US Navy intelligence-gathering vessel Pueblo was fired upon and captured by North Korea, which claimed it had entered their territorial waters on a spy mission. One sailor was killed in the attack and the remaining 82 were taken into custody. The majority of the sensitive data on board was recovered by the North Korean forces. After eleven months of negotiation and the ongoing torture of the crew, the US apologized and promised not to spy any further on North Korea. The prisoners were released on December 23, 1968, and the apology and assurances were later retracted by the United States. The Pueblo itself remains in North Korean hands to this day, the 2nd-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy.

As one might expect, the US public were concerned by the Pueblo incident, but, at the height of the Vietnam War, not eager to start another conflict. In a Harris survey taken in early February, nearly all supported some action; only 5% favored doing nothing at all. The question was what to do. Seventy-six percent thought that the US should try harder to negotiate a prisoner exchange, but no other approaches garnered majority support. Only 25% backed bombing a North Korean city; 22% favored going to war with them, and even fewer, 11%, wanted the US to capture a Russian spy ship in response. A Gallup poll at the same time found 47% thought a war was likely, however, and only 38% thought it was not. In that survey 25% favored various military options, but most wanted to at least start with negotiations. Nearly half (46%) were happy with the way LBJ was handling the situation, against 32% who did not. This is surprising, as Johnson’s overall Gallup rating for handling North Korea in general was only 33% approval versus 47% disapproval.

Responsibility, Overconfidence, & Intervention Efforts in the Age of Fake News

Who does the public hold accountable in the age of mass misinformation? What is being done now to deal with the problem? How can it be done better?

Fake news is a hot topic. Big names and big businesses have been implicated, and topics of blame and responsibility have risen to the forefront. While some remark that fake news is nothing new, fake news in the modern socio-political moment, accompanied and strengthened by the rapidly globalizing and technologizing landscapes, is indeed something new.

In the summer of 2017, I had the incredible and challenging opportunity of conducting my first ever research project, focused on pressing, fake news-related questions. With funding from the inaugural Andrew Kohut fellowship and with the patient and helpful guidance of Professor Peter Enns, I used the Roper Center’s iPOLL database to explore my ideas. What these surveys hinted at was alarming, and it became clear how crucial it was to explore the topic at a deeper level and to brainstorm ways this research could materialize into a productive contribution. Using data sourced from Roper, this project focuses on accountability, user confidence, and how public opinion polling can drive more effective fake news intervention efforts.

Ultimately, the research I conducted this summer leads me to suggest that:

  1. There is evidence that American people do want media and technology corporations held accountable when they facilitate the spread of deceptive news—but these opinions are somewhat malleable depending on how poll questions are framed for respondents.
  2. Overconfidence effects are at play. Americans, on the individual level, do not believe that they themselves are especially vulnerable to fake news. These poll results must be taken very seriously by any initiatives devoted to combating fake news and bolstering media literacy.

What is fake news?

Defining fake news is more challenging than it may seem on the outset, perhaps due to how frequently the term is thrown around and the range of different meanings it holds for different subsets of the population. I limited fake news to mean factually inaccurate news articles, spread online through mass media and social networks with the assistance of advertisement generators, and unknowing (or perhaps knowing) netizens. The role of ad generators is quite significant. It is important to keep in mind that there is a large financial incentive component (in addition to and aside from socio-political incentives) driving the curation of fake news. References to fake news in this writing focus primarily on the type of articles that are not based in fact and spread by irreputable sources. Well-known examples of what I typify as fake news include the article that asserted the Pope endorsed Donald Trump, or pieces related to the Pizzagate scandal, which, using fake news websites, among other platforms, gained immense traction in spreading misinformation. When considering respondents and the choices they select when answering a public opinion survey poll, it is crucial to keep in mind that determining a definition for fake news is a complicated process, and members of the general public answering these questions may have different interpretations.

How do Americans really feel about fake news?

Large numbers of Americans are perturbed by the traction that mass misinformation has garnered. The majority of those surveyed believe that factually inaccurate reporting is hurting the country and leaving Americans confused.

While these may seem like obvious assertions, it is eye-opening to access the numbers behind these statements. Some of the first questions this project explored were: What do Americans really think of fake news? And exactly how many of them think what? Working with actual numbers in Roper’s iPOLL helped to clarify that a substantial majority of Americans (84%) are anywhere from “somewhat” to “very” concerned that “fake news is hurting the country,” and a similar majority (88%) think that “made-up news stories leave Americans confused about the basic facts of current issues and events.” Those with the strongest beliefs, who are “a great deal” or “very” concerned, made up over 60% of the results in each poll.

Let’s take a look:

How does the American public want fake news to be dealt with? Are social media and technology corporations to blame?

After establishing that fake news was a problem that a majority of Americans were concerned about, I set out to explore the topic of accountability. Specifically, this project focused on accusations against large technology and social network corporations for facilitating the spread of mass misinformation.

Sixty percent of respondents in a February 2017 poll conducted by the Associated Press marked “yes” when asked if they ever got their news from Facebook. Given that a sizable chunk of the American population does get at least some of its news through online media and technology websites, the conversation surrounding the responsibilities of these platforms has become increasingly salient in the wake of election-related mass misinformation. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have been brought to the forefront, and their leaders have been called on to speak out.

Through public opinion data, I hoped to better understand how the American people at large (rather than just academics, journalists, activists, etc.) felt about holding these corporations accountable. Polls suggest that indeed, people do want media and tech businesses to take responsibility and facilitate prevention methods. This request for responsibility, however, becomes less staunch when polling prompts include language in support of free-market ideals.

When wording is altered to prime free market ideals, respondents choose a little differently. A McClatchy/Marist poll presents this phenomenon with the following question:

These polls showcase some interesting findings. First off, they show that the opinion of a notable portion of the public sways to the side of holding big media and tech businesses accountable. However, in the second poll, the percentage of respondents who desire sites like Facebook and Twitter to take responsibility drops to around 30%. This disparity can explain itself in various different ways.

One conclusion is that Americans do not have fully formed perspectives of corporate social responsibility in the context of dealing with misinformation. This is why in one public opinion poll, over 70% of Americans believed that networking and search sites hold a “fair amount” or a “great deal” of responsibility, and in another poll, less than a majority, only around 40%, held the opinion that “Facebook and Twitter have a responsibility to stop the sharing of information that is identified as false.”

However, a reader could also think about things in this different way. Even when McClatchy/Marist positions the option to hold these businesses accountable as counter to “free market” thinking, a very sizable portion of slightly over 40% of respondents still believe that these networking platforms have a responsibility. A question phrased to frame the misinformation topic in terms of the country’s economic system of choice still sparks substantially divided perspectives on the fake news dilemma.

Some public-opinion based insights for fake news-combating initiatives

One especially interesting finding in iPOLL showed that despite all of the attention generated on the topic of fake news and its negative impacts, people are quite confident in their own abilities to detect fake news. This confidence is not justified by competence—a significant finding for any initiatives geared toward improving media literacy and combating misinformation.

The fake news problem implicates many actors and conceptions of responsibility. It establishes that a majority of Americans are worried about fake news, and assign to online networking sites and search engines the duty of taking preventative action. Public opinion also presents the somewhat frightening, somewhat amusing belief held by a majority of respondents. That is the confident belief in one’s own ability to detect fake from authentic news. A glance at this Pew 2016 poll shows us the numbers:

Here, an overwhelming majority of 84% of survey respondents have selected either “very” or “somewhat” confident when characterizing their own ability to tell real news from fake news, and around 15% indicated that they are “not very” or “not at all” confident.

This self-perceived competence is noteworthy because studies have demonstrated that despite the confidence many hold in their ability to discern between real and fake news, Americans are quite incapable of thoroughly detecting false information and untrustworthy news sources. For example, Clay Calvert contributed an article to the Huffington Post, aptly titled “Fake News, Censorship & the Third-Person Effect: You Can’t Fool Me, Only Others!” and Brett Edkins wrote a Forbes piece with the headline “Americans Believe They Can Detect Fake News. Studies Show They Can’t.” Both authors conclude or hint to solutions of the problem with emphasis on the importance of educating the public on quality news consumption and/or holding social media accountable.

I suggest that this pairing of incompetence and overconfidence may dilute the effectiveness of solutions to fake news—especially when a vast number of initiatives designed to combat the fake news problem depend on overconfident users’ participation. Programs need to specifically address overconfidence effects in order to be productive on a large scale. When people are relatively content with their ability to do something, they typically find themselves less motivated to spend time, energy, and money improving, especially if they consider themselves busy beings preoccupied with improving capabilities in domains they are less skilled in.

User overconfidence becomes a serious problem when considering the workshops, applications, software, and media literacy curricula dedicated to fighting the mass misinformation problem.  Many programs rely on the potentially flawed notion that there exists an eager audience awaiting their new service or product. This is a crucial finding that must be acknowledged by Facebook, Twitter, Google, the 20 recipients of the Knight Foundation’s recent Prototype Fund focused on addressing the “spread of misinformation,” community and academic workshop curators, and to the rest of those devoted in some capacity to addressing to fake news. If success of an initiative depends on mass participation, for example, depending on users to download additional software on their phones and computers, to set aside time in their schedule to learn a lesson, or to contribute to reporting questionable articles, then the creators of said initiatives must confront the notion that their hard work may very well fall on deaf ears. Americans are worried about fake news, but that does not mean they will make an effort and take advantage of helpful resources in their own lives to assist with solving this problem—especially if they think they can manage competently with the status quo. 

The questions we, as tech/education/media designers, responsible business people, and engaged citizens need to start asking are:

Until we begin to thoroughly address these obstacles, well-intentioned and carefully thought-out efforts to combat fake news may falter. Public opinion shows us that we must motivate a substantial amount of citizens to become dedicated to improving their own media literacy in measurable, tangible ways.


Claire Liu is a junior pursuing a double major in Government and independent study, focused on persuasion and propaganda through the Arts and Sciences College Scholar program, and a minor in French. She was a Roper Center Kohut Fellow in the summer of 2017. To learn more about the Kohut Fellowship, click here.

Ideological Self-Identification Before Democratic Collapse: The Case of Chile Before

September 11 evokes tragic memories in the U.S. due to the terrorist attacks in 2001. Far south in the Americas in Chile, the date is associated with a different tragedy. In September 11, 1973, a bloody military coup interrupted one of the longest running democracies in the world. That day, the Palacio de la Moneda (the Presidential Office) was bombed, the democratically elected President Salvador Allende died, and General Augusto Pinochet inaugurated an authoritarian regime that would last until 1990. With this coup, Chile joined the majority of Latin American countries in the 1970s in rule by an authoritarian regime.

La Moneda (Presidential Palace) under attack during the military coup

La Moneda (Presidential Palace) under attack during the military coup. Source: AFP in BBC 2013

Often, analysis of the causes and effects of military coups are focuses on macro factors such as economic, political, international conditions that favor the collapse of democracy. The literature rarely touches public opinion trends in these contexts.[1] The Roper Center’s collection of historical Latin American polling provides an invaluable resource for facilitating new insights about the political environments leading to military coups. In the case of Chile, the Roper Center holds more than forty public opinion surveys from 1956 to 1973. These datasets offer information on individual voting preferences, government support, party identification, economic evaluations, ideological preferences, and many other political, cultural, and social variables.

Here we present data on political ideology to show how the population identified with the political Left, Right, or Center before 1973.[2] The intense political competition at this time saw parties on the Left, Center, and Right alternating in government and opposition until the collapse of democracy due to a right-wing military rebellion. Looking at the variation of ideology at the population level can increase our understanding about Chile in this period and about political outcomes such as regime transition, as well as raise more questions about political behavior.

Figure 1. Ideological identification of individuals in metropolitan Santiago from 1957 to 1973

chart showing Chileans' political ideologies before dictatorship

Between October 1957 and February 1973, Chile had four presidents from three different political ideologies: Carlos Ibañez del Campo (Right, 1952-1958), Jorge Alessandri (Right, 1958-1964), Eduardo Frei Montalva (Center, 1964-1970), and Salvador Allende (Left, 1970-1973). Figure 1 shows how people identified themselves with political ideologies in public opinion polls in those years. Respondents answered to questions such as “Which of the following political groups do you prefer?”, “Do you feel closer to the Right, Left, or Center?”, or “Where would you classify yourself?” The answer options offered across time were “Right”, “Center”, and “Left”. In addition, other answer options—slightly less consistent over time—were “Others”, “Did not answer/no opinion”, and “Don’t know”. [3] The data come from 17 surveys carried out in metropolitan Santiago, the capital, political center, and major urban concentration of the country representing around of 35% of the Chilean population in those years.

The figure reveals some interesting trends. Responses move from a relative balance among ideologies with a slightly higher number on the conservative Right, to a dominance of the Left. In 1957, most respondents identified with the Right, followed by the Left and Center.[4] Not surprisingly, a right-wing candidate, Alessandri, was elected president in 1958. From July-August 1961 to March 1966, pluralities of respondents chose Center as their ideology and, again, this growing identification in the population correlates with the victory of a candidate from the same ideology, Frei, in the 1964 presidential elections.

The Left and Center then alternated as dominant ideologies until 1970, when most people identified with the Left and a leftist president, Allende, was elected.

President Salvador Allende speaks to his supporters in 1970

President Salvador Allende speaks to his supporters in 1970. Source: Clarin 2016

After 1970, more sectors of the population continued identifying with the Left. Only in this presidential term, a political ideology at the population level actually grew significantly in the direction of the ideology of the government. After two years of Allende’s term, the April-June 1972 survey indicates that 49% of respondents identified with the Left, representing almost half of the population in Santiago and 16% more than in March 1970. The Center was second with 26% and the Right was third with 15%. In the last survey available for the period, in February 1973, the Left slightly declined but continued to be the main ideology with 43%, followed by the Center and Right, which grew to 27% and 22% respectively. Unfortunately, we do not have more surveys available to observe the ideological distribution right before or after the military coup in September 11 of 1973, because CEDOP/Hamuy stopped conducting survey research.

The growing ideological identification with the Left was associated to growing electoral support to Allende’s party. The New York Times reported in 1971 that Allende’s Unidad Popular improved its electoral performance in the municipal elections of that year. In addition, in the legislative elections of 1973 the party gained more seats compared to 1970.[5]

Having both more people identifying with the Left and supporting Allende in elections is puzzling, given the economic conditions during Allende’s era (1970-1973). If the economy is going well, more sectors within the population would be expected to identify with the ideology of the government and reward the governing party in elections. In contrast, if the economy is performing badly, more sectors would move away from the government ideology and punish the incumbent. However, ideological identification and electoral behavior run contrary to expectations here. Economic indicators deteriorated from 1970 to 1973. Economic growth went from 3.6% to -4.3%; inflation moved from 36% to 605%, and there was an annual increase of real wages from 8.5% to –38.6%.[6]

Undoubtedly, more research is needed to empirically assess why the Left—and government electoral support—grew in this period. Perhaps government policies such as increased social spending, wage adjustments, and other redistributivist policies increased identification with the Left. Possibly increasing political polarization between leftist and right-wing forces made more sectors identify with the government.[7] In any case, these survey data indicate an interesting line of inquiry for future exploration.

General Augusto Pinochet in a parade after taking power

General Augusto Pinochet in a parade after taking power. Source: AFP in BBC 2013

Another interesting trend relates to political polarization. One of the causes often cited in Allende’s fall is the extreme polarization between the government’s party and the opposition, which led to political conflict, executive-legislative gridlock, and government instability. But was the population equally polarized? If this were the case, one would expect to find a declining number of people who identify with the Center due to an increasing identification with the Left and Right. In a polarized society, people move from the Center to the extremes. However, these surveys suggest otherwise. While the Left grew, the Center remained relatively stable, and the Right declined from 1970 to 1972. Moreover, it seems that the Center was not the sector that lost followers to the Left, but that the Left grew out of those who chose not to answer the question before (which declined from 30% to 6% between 1957 and 1973). Thus, while studies on the period indicated that political polarization did happen at the elite level, these surveys seem to indicate that the population was not equally polarized, which raises questions about how polarization at the macro and micro levels relate to each other.

Perhaps the inclination of the Chilean population to the left, the better electoral performance of Allende’s party in those years, and the prospects of more and more redistributive government measures, worried economic elites, leading them to think that they would not be able to remove Allende from power by following democratic means and therefore bringing them to support a military coup. Care must be taken in over-interpretation. The data presented here only represent views from metropolitan Santiago, and can not be extrapolated to represent the entire population. But, by exploring these surveys, much can be gained in terms of understanding popular attitudes and preferences in the context of political conflict in democratic settings, and how they may influence political outcomes such as military coups and transitions to authoritarian regimes.


Jose Tomas Sanchez is a PhD Student in the Government Department (Cornell University). He was a Roper Center Kohut Fellow in the summer of 2017. To learn more about the Kohut Fellowship, click here.


[1] Some academic works that used public opinion data to analyze this period are: a) Navia, Patricio & Rodrigo Osorio. 2017 (forthcoming). ‘Make the economy scream’? Economic, ideological and social determinants of support for Salvador Allende in Chile, 1970-1973. Journal of Latin American Studies. b) Navia, Patricio & Rodrigo Osorio. 2015. Las Encuestas de Opinion Pública en Chile antes de 1973. Latin American Research Review. c) Fleet, Michael. 1985. The Rise and Fall of Chilean Christian Democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. d) Torcal Mariano & Mainwaring Scott. 2003. The Political Recrafting of Social Bases of Party Competition: Chile, 1973–95. British Journal of Political Science.

[2] These data were collected from the websites of the Roper Center at Cornell University (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/). The organizations responsible for the studies were CEDOP/Hamuy Archive for the period 1966-1973. All the surveys were conducted in Spanish.

[3] There were other options such as “none”, “no data”, and “independent” that appeared fewer than three times. Only “independent” is shown in the figure because it reached 27% and was offered only once.

[4] In the first survey of October 1957 the number of respondents choosing not to answer the question was 29%, those answering “Independent” were 27%, and both were higher than any of the three political ideologies, Left (15%), Center (8%) or Right (18%). Perhaps it was because political surveys were just beginning in Chile and people were suspicious, or because “Independent” was offered as an option only in that survey. The case is that only thereafter most respondents placed themselves within one of the three ideologies, although the option “Did not answer/No opinion” was relatively high until the end of the 1960s.

[5] Kaufman, Edy. 1988. Crisis in Allende’s Chile. New York: Praeger Publishers.

[6] Larrain, Felipe and Patricio Meller. 1991. “The Socialist-Populist Chilean Experience.” in The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Ed. Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[7] See Pribble, Jennifer. 2013. Welfare and Party Politics in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press; and Kaufman, Edy. 1988. Crisis in Allende’s Chile. New York: Praeger Publishers.

The Long Hot Summer: Riots in

The Summer of Love was not the only nickname given to those months in 1967 when the world seemed to be changing at a record pace. Over 150 riots fueled by racial tensions erupted in American cities, an escalation of the outbreaks that had occurred over the previous years, giving rise to the moniker “The Long Hot Summer.” The public response to these events, as recorded in public polling from the period, underscored the racial divisions in the country.

Lighting the Spark

The first questions to address the causes of urban rioting in this period came in an August 1965 Harris poll, which asked respondents in their own words to name the two or three main reasons the riots broke out in “Negro areas” of Los Angeles, Chicago, and other places. No single answer dominated the responses, but the top reasons given were young punks and hoodlums on the loose (22%), unemployment and poverty (16%), and Communists (15%), while small percentages blamed hopelessness, harsh treatment by police, rabblerousers, and even hot weather.

In the fall of 1966 and into March 1967, the newly created Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University delved deeper into the roots of violent outbreaks in cities with a survey of residents in six northern U.S. cities. The study found stark differences between whites and blacks in perceptions of the causes of riots. Whites were more likely than blacks to see outsiders stirring up trouble or hearing news of riots in other cities as a cause of rioting. Blacks were more likely to blame riots on lack of opportunities, unemployment, bad living conditions, and racial segregation in schools. Nowhere did black and white views diverge more dramatically than on police brutality. Perception of police brutality as a cause of riots was 54 percentage points higher among blacks than among whites.

Bar graph showing black Americans' perceptions of the causes of rioting in 1967

Bar graph showing white Americans' perceptions of the causes of rioting in 1967

In July 1967, Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to determine what was causing the rioting and how to prevent more unrest in the future. But the findings of the Commission, released in February 1968, did not unite Americans in a shared understanding of what was happening in U.S. cities. In a March 1968 Harris poll reported in the Washington Post, 37% of Americans agreed with the Commission’s view that the 1967 race riots were brought on mainly by white racism; 49% disagreed. A majority of whites (53%) rejected this idea, with just 35% agreeing. In contrast, 58% of blacks supported it, and only 17% disagreed. Again, particularly sharp divisions were found on the role of police brutality in the riots; 51% of blacks, but only 10% of whites, believed this was a major cause.

Ball of Confusion around Solutions

Given the lack of consensus on the causes of riots, it’s unsurprising that the public did not agree on solutions. A 1966 Harris poll found the country rather pessimistic about the effect of the antipoverty bill on outbreaks of violence. Just over a third (35%) though the bill would get at the causes of racial unrest, 45% said it would not. As with many other questions about the causes and solutions to racial problems in the country, there was a substantial proportion (20%) who said they didn’t know.

Harris polls in August and November of 1967 showed that majorities thought that a number of approaches could be effective in preventing “racial outbreaks,” from federal works projects to exterminating rats in the “slums.” The results in November showed a small, but consistent, decreased optimism from August.

Bar graph showing Americans' perceptions of approaches to curb "racial outbreaks" in 1967

One idea that was circulating at the time was that perhaps the cities themselves were to blame for the problems, and that encouraging black people to move out of large Northern cities into smaller towns or cities would decrease outbreaks of violence. In a 1966 Gallup poll, the country was divided on this notion: 34% thought it would be a good idea, 39% a poor idea, and 26% had no opinion.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, riots again broke out in cities around the country. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago issued an order to “shoot to kill arsonists” and “shoot to maim looters.” A May 1968 Gallup poll asked respondents their feelings about this order to “shoot on sight anyone found looting stores during race riots.” More than half (54%) said that this was indeed the best way to deal with this problem, while 41% thought there was a better way.

The View from the States

Several state polls also addressed questions about urban rioting. Unfortunately, smaller sample sizes and sometimes a lack of demographic questions limit the value of historical data at the state level by preventing analysis of responses by race. But the overall results from 1967 polls in Minnesota and Iowa reflect attitudes seen in national polls at the time.

Minneapolis had experienced an episode of looting and arson on Plymouth Avenue in 1966. In June of 1967, before a major Minneapolis riot in July, the Minnesota Poll asked Minnesota residents whether the recent outbreaks of rioting were a result of racial discrimination or outbreaks by hoodlums and lawless elements. Thirty-two percent said discrimination; 49% said hoodlums.

Minnesotans were also split on the best response to riots. When given a list of options, a plurality of 29% said city policy should take a firmer hand before riots could break out, and 18% thought the “Negro community should restrain its own people.” But 24% thought white middle class Americans should do more to “help and understand the Negro,” and 16% thought the federal government should do more to eliminate poverty.

The poll found Minnesotans had mixed views about the relationship between the riots and the Civil Rights Movement. When asked if there were a connection between the two, 49% said there was, 38% disagreed. A full 65% thought the riots were planned, rather than just flare-ups that got out of control.

Incidents in Waterloo and Des Moines, Iowa in early summer led to questions about rioting in a Des Moines Register and Tribune Co. Poll in August 1967, and Iowans expressed mixed attitudes. Respondents to this poll were overwhelmingly white, reflecting the demographics of Iowa as a whole, and their attitudes were in line with whites in the Lemberg survey. Strong majorities agreed that the riots were the result of a small number of troublemakers, not the majority of “law-abiding” black Americans. Most did not see the riots as a civil rights protest; a larger proportion saw them simply as an excuse to loot. Nearly all respondents rejected the idea that police had treated black citizens with brutality.

Bar graph showing Iowans' perceptions of 1967 riots

Kathleen Weldon is Director of Data Operations and Communications at the Roper Center. She manages data provider relations, oversees the data curation process, plans archival development, and works closely with the IT development team in building new user tools.

A Creeping Doubt: Public Support for Vietnam in

In Vietnam, no one called 1967 the Summer of Love.

With half a million US troops on the ground and almost twice that number of allies, the year was to see the largest-scale battles in the conflict so far. Several massive efforts to destroy North Vietnamese forces in the area dubbed the “Iron Triangle” were tactical successes but did little to change the overall strategic picture of the war. While US commanders hoped to seize the initiative in the struggle with the various operations, events of the following year such as the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh would show that the enemy was far from on their heels. Despite typical reported casualty ratios of 10-1 in American favor, as the year wore on the rising casualties and lack of demonstrable victories began to erode the public’s support for both the war and the president.

Disapproval of Johnson’s handling of the war went from 43% in January to a peak of 60% in late August, dropping back to 49% at year’s end. The view that the US had made a mistake in sending troops to Vietnam steadily increased from 32% to 45%. In the last half of the year the public preference for how the war should be conducted also began to shift. While the proportion calling for “total military victory” went up from 21% to 26%, and the 51% who wanted a “negotiated peace” fell to 33%, those who simply wanted the US to “get out as quickly as possible” went from 24% to a peak of 44% before ending the year at 34%. By December, pluralities supported more militant options such as invading North Vietnam itself, occupying the DMZ, and mining Haiphong harbor, but majorities opposed major escalations such as attacking supply lines and airfields in China and introducing nuclear weapons. In December 1966, only 15% of Americans had thought the war would be over by the end of 1967. That pessimism proved prophetic.

Protests against involvement in the war began to increase in size and frequency during 1967, culminating in 100,000 people gathering in Washington DC in October. Demonstrations were also ramping up on college campuses across the nation. Polling in 1967 itself rarely addressed these protests, though the exception indicated approval was likely low. In a December Harris poll, 40% of Americans didn’t think people who were against the war in Vietnam even had the right to undertake peaceful demonstrations against the war. The next year, as protests continued, polls addressed the issue more frequently. An April NORCE poll found 60% thought that college protests were not a healthy sign for America. More dramatically, 56% in a 1968 Gallup poll approved of Chicago police beating anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention that summer. While this discontent would soon lead to President Johnson’s stunning decision not to run for re-election in 1968, polling clearly indicates how deeply divided the nation was on the subject of Vietnam and makes Nixon’s victory amid promises to swiftly end the conflict unsurprising.

Carl Brown is iPOLL Acquisitions Manager. He has been with the Roper Center since 1999, and currently collects and prepares new polls for entry into the iPOLL system and selects poll questions for our daily Twitter feed. He has a B.A. in Modern European History and an M.A. in American History from the University of Connecticut.

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came: Changing Opinions on the Draft

Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1967, a group of students gathered at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park to burn their draft cards. More than 150 cards were set alight that day, the largest such protest to that point in the Vietnam War. The year before, Selective Service had hit 382,000 inductions, the highest levels yet in the war, through a system that gave local draft boards great leeway in determining just who would be called for duty. Although the young protesters may have been the most vocal in their dissatisfaction with the draft, opinion polling from the time shows that the public overall had grave concerns about how the draft was implemented.

Vietnam Changed Everything

The general public seemed satisfied with the draft system in polls before Vietnam. During World War II, the majority of Americans believed that the draft was working fairly in their communities, with more than eight in ten saying so in Gallup polls throughout the war. A 1953 Gallup poll found 60% thought the draft was handled fairly in their communities, with 29% expressing no opinion. But less than half of the country thought that the draft system was working fairly in polls from 1965 to 1968.

Many criticisms were lodged against the draft system during this period, from disproportionate selection of poor and black men to unfair educational exemptions to the questionable necessity of the uncertainty young men lived with throughout their eligible years. Without comprehensive polling data, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the most important reason for lower support during this period, but polls did include some questions that indicated likely elements at play.

One issue was the system for deferments for college students. A 1966 poll from Louis Harris showed 46% of Americans thought the current draft system as it related to college students was unfair; only 44% thought it was fair. Unfortunately, the question described both the availability of deferral and the limitations on those deferrals, and there is no way of knowing which the respondents considered to be unfair. The polling record also does not give information about how many white Americans saw racial discrimination in the draft. The question was not put to the general public, though it was asked in a 1969 Gallup poll of black Americans. A plurality of 47% said “the present draft laws are unfair to Negroes”, while only 32% said they were fair. Twenty-two percent were not sure.

The polls do show clearly that the public believed not everyone fulfilled their service appropriately. A full 78% of the public believed that there was or some or a lot of draft-dodging going on. The public didn’t just see draft evasion as a question of young men going to jail or to Canada to avoid the military. Majorities believed that athletes and celebrities got deferments and that the rich could buy their way out of the draft.

The draft system itself, with its locus of control in local draft boards, was designed in such a way that some of these abuses perceived by the public may have been inevitable. But that didn’t mean people were ready to move to a more impartial lottery system. Gallup and Harris polls during those years showed a range of support for a shift to a lottery, with the highest levels of support (39%) shown in a June 1967 poll, and the lowest (25%) in August 1966. Support never reached majority levels.

Nonetheless, on December 1, 1969, the first lottery was held to determine draft priority. Men born between 1944 and 1950 were assigned numbers that indicated the order of induction, thereby eliminating some of the uncertainty that men of eligible age had experienced to that point.

Be All That You Can Be

President Richard Nixon wanted to go further than changing the draft system. He wanted to eliminate the draft and move to an all-volunteer army. Early in his presidency, Nixon requested the establishment of a commission to study the feasibility and desirability of such a plan. The Gates Commission presented their report on February 21st, 1970, drawing heavily on the ideas of Milton Friedman to argue that an all-volunteer army would foster competition, building a better, stronger army while maintaining individual liberty. Although the last conscripted soldier was drafted in 1972, the military had already taken steps toward building an all-volunteer service, increasing pay and advertising for recruits. Draft registrations were suspended in 1975.

In July 1980, Carter reinstated the requirement that young men register with Selective Service, a move that was supported by 64% in a Cambridge Reports/Research International poll at the time. Majorities in polls in 1980 and 1981 favored reinstatement of the draft. A 1980 ABC News/Louis Harris poll showed that the public did not share Friedman’s belief in the effect of bringing market forces to bear on military recruitment. Rather, 57% agreed with the statement “the young people the military has recruited on a voluntary basis mainly have been those who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere and have not made very good soldiers.” The public may have been skeptical about an all-volunteer military, but they still believed the way the draft had been administered in the last war had been unfair. In a 1980 ABC News/Louis Harris poll, 69% of likely voters agreed with the statement “the draft worked very unfairly during the Vietnam War, with college students and the sons of the rich figuring out how to avoid the draft.”

Over time, the public has come to accept the all-volunteer army as the norm. Support for the draft dropped off dramatically over the early eighties and has not reached majority support since. Results from questions about reinstatement from the last fifteen years stand in stark contrast to similar questions from the early eighties.

Some support for a return to the draft appeared during the first Gulf War. An August 1990 Gallup poll found 40% of the country supporting the reinstatement of the draft to provide soldiers for the conflict in the Middle East. But no such effect was seen during the Iraq War, when less than a quarter of the country favored reinstatement of the draft. Overall support for the draft has remained very low since the turn of the millennium. In the most recent poll on the subject, from CNN/ORC in February 2017, just 20% said they supported a return to the military draft.


Kathleen Weldon is Director of Data Operations and Communications at the Roper Center. She manages data provider relations, oversees the data curation process, plans archival development, and works closely with the IT development team in building new user tools.

Going All the Way: Public Opinion and Premarital Sex

Fifty years ago during the Summer of Love, the emerging hippie subculture captured the attention of the nation. Young people outraged their elders with unconventional haircuts, clothes, and music; skeptical attitudes about property and traditional religion, and, perhaps most shockingly, belief in free sexual expression outside the bounds of marriage. Public opinion polling from the time indicates that the counterculture position on “free love” was indeed antithetical to the majority view of marriage as a morally necessary precondition for sexual activity. But the poll questions themselves also reveal an increasing openness about sexuality in the 1960s that preceded and anticipated major changes in public attitudes.

Something “Wicked”: Polling on Sex Pre-1960

The language of the archive’s earliest polling question on sexuality has not aged well. A 1939 Roper/Fortune survey first broached the subject of morality of sexual relations by asking if it was “all right, unfortunate, or wicked” for young men and women to have sexual relations before marriage. Interestingly, the question about young “girls” was posed only to men, and that about young “men” only to women. More importantly, these questions were only asked of respondents of the same sex as their interviewer. The subject of sex was seemingly too delicate to be discussed between the sexes, even in a research context.

In 1943, Roper revisited this question, asking only women their perceptions of sex before marriage for both sexes. A slightly larger proportion said it was “wicked” for young girls (46%) to have premarital sex than said the same about young men (37%).

In 1950, a NORC poll asked respondents whether they agreed with the statement: “No decent man can respect a woman who has had sexual relations before marriage.” Just 29% agreed. In 1953, NORC refielded the question, with similar results (33%). These results may seem surprisingly positive about premarital sexual activity, particularly in light of the earlier Roper questions; however, the strong wording of the statement, while providing a socially acceptable framework for the question, may have triggered a high negative response.

These questions represented nearly all those asked about the morality of sex in a general sense before 1960. Polls in the thirties, forties, and fifties occasionally touched on matters related to sex, like birth control and management of venereal disease in the military. But generally such subjects were skirted.

 Let’s Talk about Sex: Polling in the ‘60s

The turn of the decade marked an increase in questions about sexuality. While the overall Roper Center polling archive holds slightly more questions from the 1950s than the 1960s, the number of questions about sex shifted from just 13 in the 1950s to 94 in the 1960s. A 1962 survey of American women, married and unmarried, delved into issues including whether women of the respondents’ acquaintance discussed sexual matters frankly with each other (48% of married women said yes), whether most husbands were sexually satisfied with their wives and vice versa, and whether respondents knew any married people who were having sexual affairs. Women were also asked if moral standards in the country had changed. While 25% said no, 44% said moral standards had become too loose, 10% that there was too much sex, and 11% that sex was discussed too openly. Those giving the latter answer might have felt the survey itself, with its candid questions, was a fine case in point.

A battery of questions asked by NORC in 1963 delved deeply into American attitudes about premarital sexual activity, with neutral questions that differentiated between the sexes, the level of relationship, and the type of sexual behavior. While some behaviors were considered more acceptable for young men than young women (particularly “petting” when engaged to be married), the greatest distinctions were between the level of sexual involvement, not the sex of the participant or even the relationship between the parties involved. Very few Americans thought premarital sex was acceptable for anyone. Even when asking about young men or women engaged to be married, the survey found fewer than one in five who considered premarital sex acceptable.

By mid-decade, pollsters were specifically addressing the question of cultural changes in sexual attitudes. In 1964, Gallup asked if Americans believed there had been a change in attitudes towards sex since the end of World War II. Over half (56%) said there had been a great change, and 26% some change. Only 13% said there hadn’t been much change at all. Sixty-four percent of respondents in the same survey said that teenagers today had different attitudes about sex than they did when they were teenagers.

Another indicator of changing attitudes was the inclusion of a question about homosexuality in a 1965 Harris poll, a subject never before broached in public opinion polling. The public was disapproving overall: Seventy percent said homosexuals were more harmful than helpful to American life, though 29% said they neither harmed nor helped. But the topic had been raised, and when the question was repeated in 1969, just after the Stonewall riots, the proportion saying homosexual people were harmful had shifted downward slightly, to 63%.

May I Speak Frankly? The 1970s

Despite the greater openness in polling questions, there was little in the actual responses in the 1960s to indicate that Americans’ attitudes toward sexual matters had changed substantially. A 1969 Gallup poll found that just 21% thought it was not wrong for a man and woman to have sex before marriage.

In 1972, NORC started the General Social Survey (GSS), an ongoing series of polls on social attitudes. The question GSS used about premarital sex was more nuanced than Gallup’s, allowing a range of responses from “not at all wrong” to “always wrong.” In the first GSS study, the public was nearly evenly split between those who thought that sex outside marriage was wrong only sometimes or not at all and those who thought it was always or almost always wrong. Since then, the proportion who think premarital sex is always or almost always wrong has drifted slowly downward, reaching a low of 25% in 2014.

Over the next few years, GSS added questions about pornography and sexual activity with someone other than one’s spouse. NORC wasn’t the only survey research organization to tackle these new areas. Over the course of the seventies, any reticence pollsters may have shown towards asking questions about sex disappeared. Polls now covered topics including women’s sexual satisfaction; discrimination against gay people, acceptability of homosexual behavior, and mothers “becoming active lesbians”; cohabitation; sexual infidelity; prostitution; and venereal disease. Polls of women became particularly personal, asking whether respondents’ pregnancies had been planned, whether they spoke as frankly about sex with men as with women, and whether the respondents themselves were sexually fulfilled.

Such questions represented an enormous change from delicate inquiries about “wickedness”. In a 1978 Yankelovich, Skelly & White poll of adults in families, 63% said they welcomed the more open talk about sex in today’s society. The public opinion research community surely agreed, as the increased candor about sex that emerged in the 1960s introduced a whole new world of American attitudes and behaviors for survey researchers to explore.


Kathleen Weldon is Director of Data Operations and Communications at the Roper Center. She manages data provider relations, oversees the data curation process, plans archival development, and works closely with the IT development team in building new user tools.

50 Years After the Summer of Love

Fifty years later, the summer of 1967—the Summer of Love, of hippies and be-ins, the Long Hot Summer of protests and riots—still stands in the popular imagination as a turning point. The social changes that had been building over the previous decade finally exploded, leaving the country forever changed. Looking back at public opinion data from the preceding years, the upheaval of 1967 almost seems inevitable. Attitudes were shifting, and polls increasingly asked questions about sex, protest, and the war, as well as continuing to focus on the racial problems facing the country.

Yet in December of 1966, Gallup asked Americans about their expectations for the coming year, the poll focused not on flower children, recreational drugs, civil rights, or changing sexual mores, but on the perennial issues of policy wonks: economics and foreign affairs. The answers reveal a mixed bag of confidence and anxiety. While on the positive side, most Americans expected full employment and rising American power in the world, a majority also expected the year to bring industrial disputes, rising prices, rising taxes, and, above all, ongoing war in Vietnam.

The war was at the top of Americans’ minds throughout 1967. Vietnam was consistently the top answer when Americans were asked the most important problem facing the country—except once, at the peak of the urban unrest in August, when Vietnam was effectively tied with racial tensions as most important.

Over the next few weeks, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, the Roper Center will use the data archive to explore these issues and more. We’ll investigate changing attitudes toward premarital sex, responses to rioting in American cities, and public perceptions of the draft. We’ll highlight datasets that allow researchers to better understand the problems of 1967 at home and abroad. And we’ll offer a glimpse at the lighter side of iPOLL, with American opinions on miniskirts, long hair, and rock and roll.

Can’t wait? Check out earlier Roper articles on attitudes about protest (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/going-too-far-the-american-publics-attitudes-toward-protest-movements/), veterans (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/a-heros-welcome-the-american-public-and-attitudes-toward-veterans/), and birth control (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/public-attitudes-birth-control/), or use our Topics at a Glance pages to find more data on Vietnam (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/vietnam-war-topics-glance/) and race relations (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/race-relations-topics-glance/).

Public Opinion and the Passage of the Medicare Bill

The early days of public opinion research captured Americans’ response to the first major efforts by the U.S. government to provide health care to its citizens, an undertaking that saw success in the passage of Medicare in 1965. A review of polls from the forties to the sixties reveals the battle for public support that ended in that landmark bill.

Truman’s Attempt

Health insurance itself was a relatively new notion in the 1940s, but most Americans liked the idea. A 1944 NORC poll found 92% thought it was a good idea to pay a certain amount each month for insurance to cover any hospital care they might have in the future. But only 34% said they themselves had any insurance against hospital bills, and just 15% against doctors’ bills. Though a 54% majority said they would prefer to have insurance, 38% said they would rather pay medical bills each time. Still, support in this poll for a large-scale government health insurance bill was high; 68% thought it would be a good idea if the Social Security law also provided paying for the doctor and hospital care that people might need in the future.

Among those who opposed expanding Social Security in this way, a plurality of 37% thought it represented too much government interference or might lead to socialism. Overall, however, the public approved of government taking the lead on health care. When asked in a 1945 Gallup poll which they preferred, a mandatory government health plan or an optional plan set up by the medical profession, 53% of respondents chose the former; just a third the latter. After President Truman called for a national health insurance program in November 1945, 59% in a Gallup poll approved of the plan; 25% disapproved.


reasons why thought medicare was a bad idea

Despite public support, the American Medical Association opposed Truman’s plan strongly and loudly. The proposal languished. By 1949, those in a Gallup poll who had heard about the Truman plan were equally divided between supporters (38%) and opponents (38%). When provided descriptions of the president’s plan and an alternative put forth by the A.M.A., only 33% preferred the former. A May Gallup poll the same year found the country divided between 44% who would have Congress pass the government’s compulsory health insurance program which would require wage or salary deduction from all employed people to provide medical and hospital care to them and their families, and 47% who would not. By 1950, a Gallup poll found that, of those who had heard about the Truman plan, only 24% approved, while 61% disapproved. Over the next few years, repeated Gallup polls found majorities opposing a government health insurance plan run by the federal government. A 1953 ORC poll showed just 30% saying the federal government should provide government health insurance for all. Government-supported health insurance seemed to be a non-starter.

The Kennedy Plan

Over the fifties, growing numbers of employer-sponsored health care plans greatly increased the proportion of insured Americans. But health care costs for the uninsured remained a serious problem, one President Kennedy was determined to address when he took office. Kennedy believed the key to achieving passage of a health care bill was to focus on the specific problem of covering the elderly, a popular position. In May 1961, support for a Social Security tax to pay for old age medical insurance was a solid 68% in a Gallup poll. In a January 1962 ORC poll, 51% of American believed there was a great, urgent need for payment of doctor, hospital, medicine bills of old people. An additional 33% saw some need; only 10% saw no need. Of those who believed there was any need, 52% thought the federal government should meet it; 33% thought state government should deal with it. Very low proportions thought private industry (2%), voluntary agencies (6%), or individuals (6%) should deal with this problem.

But the fight over what would be Medicare had just begun. The A.M.A.,along with insurers, vehemently opposed Kennedy’s proposal  on the grounds that the president was introducing socialism to America’s medical system. One letter in the Archives of Otolaryngology read:

Before swallowing the attractively flavored bait of hospitalization under social security for the aged, the public should become better informed of the philosophical implications of adopting the principle of medical and hospital services through Social Security, for unquestionably, once accepted, this mechanism is capable of infinite expansion in every direction until it includes the entire population.

A major campaign to influence public opinion was undertaken to prevent such a scenario, much to Kennedy’s frustration. He countered with an unusually aggressive outreach effort of his own, including 33 AFL-CIO rallies. In a May 1962 speech, he argued that a minority of Americans had been unduly alarmed by misrepresentation of the bill, while the majority supported it:

All these arguments were made against Social Security at the time of Franklin Roosevelt. They are made today. The mail pours in. And at least half of the mail which I receive in the White House, on this issue and others, is wholly misinformed. Last week I got 1,500 letters on a revenue measure–1,494 opposed, and 6 for. And at least half of those letters were completely misinformed about the details of what they wrote.
And why is that so? Because there are so many busy men in Washington who write-some organizations have six, seven, and eight hundred people spreading mail across the country, asking doctors and others to write in and tell your Congressman you’re opposed to it. The mail pours into the White House, into the Congress and Senators’ offices–Congressmen and Senators feel people are opposed to it. Then they read a Gallup Poll which says seventy-five percent of the people are in favor of it, and they say, “What has happened to my mail?”

Kennedy’s number was touched with a kiss of blarney; that 68% approval in Gallup’s poll the May before had represented peak support for the initiative. Despite his efforts, public support for expanding Social Security to provide medical benefits weakened over 1962. In a March Gallup poll, a 55% majority supported a plan that would be paid by increasing the Social Security tax deducted from pay checks. Thirty-five percent preferred a plan that would let each individual decide whether to join Blue Cross or buy some form of voluntary health insurance. By May, opinion had shifted slightly, with the Social Security approach favored by 48% and private insurance by 41%. In July, just 44% of Americans preferred the Medicare plan; 41% private insurance. With the public split, the bill backed by Kennedy stalled in committee in the House. A revised version amended to a welfare bill was defeated in a July vote in the Senate.

In an ORC poll following the vote, a plurality of 44% said the bill should have passed, while 37% said Congress did right in not passing it. In respondents’ evaluation of the problems with the bill, no one problem stood out as much more important than the others; substantial proportions considered each of several possible problems to have been serious. The country remained split between changing the government Social Security program to cover medical insurance for older people (43%) or expanding voluntary medical insurance plans (41%).

Perceptions of serious problems with Kennedy bill

Johnson’s Success: Medicare

Not put off by Kennedy’s failure, in 1964 Johnson looked to use the fallen president’s initiative as a springboard for again attempting to pass an elder care bill. Public approval of the idea of Medicare had rebounded from the lows of two years before. Gallup polls during the 1964 election found approval between 57% to 62% for a compulsory elder medical insurance program financed out of Social Security taxes.

In this somewhat arcane debate over financing of medical care, wording mattered. In a February 1965 Harris poll, 62% favored President Johnson’s program of medical care for the aged under Social Security. But 56% also said they favored the AMA plan in which everyone who could afford it would be covered by private health insurance and those who couldn’t would be covered under a government health plan. As is often the case with health policy, the public seemed more certain that something ought to be done than what exactly that something should be.

The Medicare bill was successfully passed at last in July 1965. A Harris poll in August found that 82% approved of the passage of the bill. When asked which of ten bills passed by the last Congress was the most important to them personally, a plurality of 28% chose Medicare. By 1967, only 8% of the country in a Harris poll wanted Medicare to be cut back, 51% wanted it to stay as it was and 35% expanded. The road to acceptance had been long and hard, but the American public was firmly behind the new program.

Presidential Transition in the Polls

The weeks between election and inauguration usually represent a honeymoon period in which the president-elect’s decisions are given good reviews by the American people. But this year is different. The first polls on Trump’s transition have appeared, and so far, public opinion is decidedly negative.

A recent Pew poll found that just 41% of the country approved of the job Trump was doing in explaining his policies and plans for the future to Americans. In 2008, 72% approved of the job Obama was doing. Pew also asked whether respondents approved of Trump’s cabinet choices and other high level appointments, a question that was also asked about the last four presidents. Just 40% of Americans approve of Trump’s choices, lower than the previous low of 58% for George W. Bush, and far below Obama’s 71%. A Bloomberg poll showed slightly higher approval, with 51% saying they approve of most of the people Trump has chosen to serve in his cabinet.

Over the next few weeks, more polls will be released showing attitudes about the transition. Comparing new numbers to historical polls will provide the necessary context to see where President-elect Trump is typical, and where he is an outlier.

Handling of the transition

The last three times that the country has undergone a transition from one presidency to another, the public has positively rated the president-elect’s management of that handoff.  Obama’s ratings were the highest among the last three presidents to take office, reflecting his strong showing in the popular vote. The first rating of Trump’s handling of the transition, from a December Gallup poll, found approval at just 48%.

Approval of handling of transition


Ratings of cabinet choices

While the majority in the last four transitions have approved of cabinet choices, Americans haven’t given stellar ratings to these appointments.  When asked to rate cabinet appointments in recent new administrations, the public has rarely called the president-elect’s selections “outstanding.” Majorities rated Clinton and G. W. Bush’s choices average or less, while Obama’s picks were rated a bit higher. Earlier polling on Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon used a three-way split with the ambiguous “fair” as the middle category, making direct comparisons impossible, but public opinion seems to have been a bit more favorable in those years.

rating of cabinet appointments

Awareness of cabinet choices

Die-hard political junkies may appreciate having Cabinet appointments to dissect after the end of an election, but after most elections, many Americans don’t pay attention. Only about one in four in 1992 could name even a single Cabinet member appointed by Bill Clinton. The proportion of Americans able to recall a specific name of a cabinet choice was higher for George W. Bush’s appointments and higher still for Barack Obama’s.  These increases, however, appeared to be driven by two particular individuals: Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s unconventional appointments might drive higher name recognition.

awareness of cabinet choices


Americans have long supported bipartisanship in Cabinet appointments – within limits. Seventy percent in a 1952 Gallup polls said they wanted Eisenhower to appoint “one or two” Democrats to his Cabinet. He did, Labor Secretary Martin Patrick Durkin.  In 1960, 62% thought Kennedy should choose one or two Republicans, which he did as well: C. Douglas Dillon as treasury secretary and moderate Robert McNamara as defense secretary.  This question was not asked for over two decades, during which Presidents-elect Nixon and George H.W. Bush had no Cabinet members from the opposing party, and Carter, Reagan and Clinton had one each. An overwhelming 86% in an ABC News/Washington Post poll thought George W. Bush should appoint some Democrats after succeeding in the electoral college, but not the popular vote; he appointed Norman Mineta as transportation secretary.  When Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek asked if Obama, who had put forth three Republican names to serve as Cabinet members, had chosen the appropriate number of Republicans and officials who had served under Bush, a plurality of 47% said the number was about right. Twenty-two percent thought there were too many, 15% too few. Public opinion tends to reward bipartisanship in general; choosing at least one Democrat would be a popular decision with the public overall, even if the base might balk.

Ideological fitness

As with party, relatively little polling has probed Americans’ perceptions of the ideology of cabinet appointments, but the record that does exist seems to indicate that the public has largely felt that new presidents have gotten the balance about right. Trump’s choices to this point have been far from moderate, but it remains to be seen whether the public’s lower approval rating of his choices stem from beliefs about his choice’s qualifications or their ideology.


Ideology of cabinet choices

Polling and Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shocked the U.S. and sent the country into war. At the time, public opinion polling was in its infancy, and early polling organizations, including Roper, Gallup, and NORC, moved quickly to field questions about the public’s response.

One striking finding from these polls was that, despite a major, direct attack on the United States by Japan, the public clearly saw Germany as the more dangerous foe.  A Fortune/Roper poll taken the week after the attack found that 47% of the public thought Germany was more of a “menace” to Americans than Japan.  Thirty-two percent believed both countries were equal, and only 10% thought Germany was less of a menace than Japan. A Gallup poll around the same time found that 64% of Americans thought Germany was a greater “threat to America’s future” than Japan, while 15%  thought the two countries posed an equal threat, and 15% thought Japan was greater. When asked by Fortune/Roper why the Japanese had attacked, the majority of Americans believed that Germany was behind the decision. Sixty-nine percent said the Japanese government was doing her part as Hitler’s ally, and her move was part of German strategy, while only 24% said it was a long term plan of the Japanese to attack the U.S. or that Japan was saving face.

By November 1942, after a number of large and brutal battles in the Pacific theater, opinions had shifted. Japan was perceived to be the greater military threat by substantial margins until the end of the war.

perception of military threats after pear lharbor


For more information about public opinion polling during World War II, please see Topics at a Glance WWII. 

2016 Election Recap

Did you know the first iPOLL question about the 2016 election appeared in 2013? It’s been a long road.  Now that election day is in the past, a look back over the 2016 race as seen through the lens of Roper Center’s historical polling data:

Vote Fraud

Curbed Enthusiasm: Voting in 2016

None of the Above: Polling and Third Party Candidates

Candidates and Tax Returns

Conventional Wisdom: Delegates, Conventions, and Nominations

Two Thumbs Down: 2016 Presidential Candidates’ Favorability

Madame President: Public Attitudes

Podiums, Platforms, and Polls: Public Opinion on the Election Debates

Never Back Down from a Fight. A Debate Is Another Story.


Want more? There are more than 5000 questions in iPOLL about the 2016 election from 2015 to today. New datasets from election polls are added regularly.


Vote Fraud

Donald Trump has claimed that illegal voting – including voting by non-citizens or people voting under assumed identities – was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win. Does the American public believe in large-scale vote fraud? A review of public opinion data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research archive:

2000: Concerns about fraud emerge

Questions about voter fraud were rare before the 2000 election, and the few that were asked were centered on potential abuses with changes in policy or technology, like same-day registration in the 1970s or the possibility of online voting in the 1990s.

The problems in the 2000 Florida vote count, however, launched multiple questions about voting irregularities. A Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners taken on November 10, 2000, found 27% of the country thought it was very likely, and 24% somewhat likely, that there was fraud in the vote for president in Florida. However, a December Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found only 31% of the public thought there had been fraud, while 64% believed there had been errors but not fraud.

Still confident (mostly)

Despite what happened in 2000, a 62% majority of voters in 2004 were very confident that their vote would be accurately counted, higher than the 49% that said the same in this year’s election. Polls taken after elections have shown somewhat higher levels of confidence in vote count accuracy, which could be a result of positive voting experiences soothing concerns. If this pattern is repeated in 2016, the proportion of Americans saying after the election they were very confident their vote had been counted accurately could be similar to levels in other recent elections.

chart confidence that vote will be counted accurately 2004 2016

Vote fraud/vote suppression

Concerns about whether a vote will be counted accurately are generally about fraud or errors after the fact: mishandling of paper ballots or problems with voting machines. In the 2016 election, however, Donald Trump implied that large-scale voter fraud would be conducted via ineligible voters casting ballots, rather than by post-voting trickery. Democrats, on the other hand, have expressed concerns that attempts to prevent voter fraud could lead to voter suppression.

A 2004 Gallup poll found that about a quarter of the country thought ineligible voters would be a major problem in the election. Roughly the same proportion thought that eligible voters not being allowed to cast a vote would be a problem. In October 2008 at the peak of concerns about ACORN, the organization accused of registering ineligible voters, more of the public expected problems with voter fraud in the election than voter suppression – and concerns about both were higher than they had been earlier. Despite the two political parties focusing on opposite sides of this issue, many of the public expected both to be a problem. Sixty-five percent of those who said votes being cast by people who were not eligible would be a major problem also thought eligible voters not being allowed to vote would be a major problem, too.

This year, polls in August found about a third of the country expecting voter fraud to be a major problem, down from 2008, while the proportion of people who expected voter suppression to be a problem remained unchanged.

Chart Expectations of Major Problems with vote fraud and vote suppression


When asked to make a direct choice about which problem is greater, the public has generally been split. In a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority (61%) said people using illegal or fraudulent means to cast votes would be the bigger problem in the 2008 election, while 35% believed that people who are eligible to vote being prevented from voting would be the bigger problem. But more recent polls with softer wording have found the public almost evenly divided. In a 2012 Washington Post poll, 49% were more concerned about the potential for voter fraud and 44% about the potential for denying eligible voters the right to vote. Similarly, a 2014 PRRI poll found 40% of Americans thought ineligible people casting votes was generally a bigger problem in U.S. elections, while 43% thought eligible voters being denied the right to vote was the bigger problem.

Chart perception of whether vote fraud or vote suppression is a bigger problem


The American people clearly have concerns about the voting process. Despite the consensus of most researchers that voter fraud is rare, a CBS News poll in February 2015 found that a majority of Americans considered voter fraud to be fairly widespread. Twenty-eight percent said it happened a lot and an additional 36% said it happened sometimes. A September ABC News/Washington Post poll found similar results, with 20% of the public saying voter fraud happens very often and 26% somewhat often. These polls, however, were conducted before Trump’s insistence that the election was rigged became a central tenet in his campaign. An October ABC News poll found 39% of likely voters thought Trump had legitimate concerns, 59% thought he was making excuses in case he lost.  Whether the American public believes, or will come to believe, that voter fraud is widespread enough to have changed the popular vote victory remains to be seen.

Shutdown Showdown

Another budget negotiation, another government shutdown? Maybe. If an agreement cannot be reached that would provide aid to Flint, MI, Senate Democrats have threatened to allow the budget year to reach an end without a continuing resolution to maintain government services. It’s hardly the first time Congress has engaged in budget-related brinkmanship. Over the past two decades, there have been three major government shutdowns and several narrowly-averted crises. Public opinion polling has shown us what the American people think of these events, how they are affected – and who they are likely to blame should the government once again become closed for business.

Better to bend than to break

Unsurprisingly, the country opposes the idea of shutting down the government. In a 2013 CBS News/NYT poll, 80% of the country agreed it was not acceptable for a President or members of Congress to threaten a government shutdown during budget negotiations; an update of this poll in 2015 that mentioned only Congress found nearly identical results. About a third of Americans in a 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said there were cuts so unacceptable to them they would rather shut down the government than compromise; 61% said compromise was always preferable. In a 2015 PRRI poll, 78% of Americans said it was more important for government officials to compromise to find solutions, while just 20% said it was more important to stand on principle, even if it meant a shutdown.

Republicans in an October 2013 Pew poll were equally divided over whether leaders who shared their views ought to stand by principles, even if that meant a shutdown (46%), or whether they should be more willing to compromise (46%). Democrats, on the other hand, generally preferred their leaders to compromise (67%). Independents’ numbers were similar to those of Democrats.
Despite the public’s proclaimed fondness for compromise in the abstract, final agreements to end or avert a crisis usually include substantial policy concessions on both sides of the aisle, which could make such agreements unpopular. However, strong majorities of Americans approved of the agreement in January 1996 that ended a shutdown and the one in April 2011 that avoided another. More recent agreements to avoid shutdowns have seen the county fairly evenly split between approval and disapproval.

approval end shutdownhutdown

Just how bad is a shutdown, anyway?

Polls clearly show that the American people see government shutdowns as serious problems, though only a relatively small minority see them as crises.  A hypothetical question asked by CNN/ORC in 2014 found nearly twice as many people would consider a shutdown of a few weeks to be a crisis than one of a few days.


government shutdown problem or crisis

There are those, however, who view shutdowns positively. After the 2013 shutdown, 20% of the country in a CNN poll said it had been a good thing, including 35% of Republicans, but just 10% of Democrats. A similar proportion of the total public said the same about the 1996 shutdown in an ABC/Washington Post poll at the time. In fact, a 1996 ABC News/Washington Post poll found half of Americans agreed that the shutdown had shown that many of the services the federal government provides are not essential and should be eliminated. Forty-six percent disagreed. In addition, a 2013 CBS News poll conducted in early October, 2013 found that over a third of the country believed that the government could operate effectively in a shutdown, about the same proportion who said so in January of 1996.

Relatively few people report direct suffering consequences from a shutdown. Consistently low proportions of the country said they were inconvenienced by the 1996 and 2011 shutdowns in ABC/Washington Post polls.  However, questions that reference not just the respondents, but the people in their families, show higher impact levels. In a 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 31% said they or their family been affected by the federal government shutdown in terms of employment, services, or benefits.

americans inconvenienced by shutdown


Pointed fingers


The economic debate over the effect of a government shutdown is generally overshadowed by the political question of who bears the blame.  In the 1995 shutdown and 1998 threatened shutdown, Republicans were roughly twice as likely to be blamed by Americans for the crisis as President Clinton was. But the threatened shutdown in 2011 saw a more even distribution of blame, with Obama and Democrats in Congress blamed by a slightly higher proportion than blamed Republicans. In the threatened 2014 shutdown, a third of Americans blamed Obama, while over four in ten blamed Republicans in Congress.
Whom Do Americans Blame for Government Shutdowns


The same pattern emerged in the 2015 crisis, with about a third in a Quinnipiac poll saying they would blame Obama and Congressional Democrats if a shutdown were to occur, 41% Republicans and 17% both. Predictably, Republicans were more likely to blame the Democrats (65%) and Democrats the Republicans (77%). Thirty-two percent of Independents blamed Obama and the Democrats; 37% blamed the Republicans.

The legislative body has a way of shutting that whole thing down

Democrats and Republicans may lay the blame for a shutdown in different places, see the effects of a shutdown differently, and differ in their desire for compromise. Polls do indicate, however, Democrats and Republicans share some common ground. In a 2011 Quinnipiac poll, 74% of Democrats, 79% of Republicans and 81% of Independents supported a bill that would prohibit members of Congress and the President from being paid during or retroactively after a government shutdown. No such bill has been passed.

Curbed Enthusiasm: Voting in

Much has been made of the supposed disenchantment of voters in the current election. In the most recent CBS News/NYT poll, only 36% of registered voters say they are enthusiastic about voting this year. But a review of polling on voter’s feelings in elections over the last two decades indicates that voter unhappiness this year may be somewhat overstated from a historical perspective.

Questions that rate enthusiasm on a straight scale from extremely enthusiastic down to not enthusiastic at all do indeed show lower enthusiasm this cycle than in the last several elections. Unfortunately, this question was not asked before 2004.

Enthusiasm in elections 2004-2016

In comparison, Gallup’s enthusiasm question, which asks respondents whether they feel more or less enthusiastic about this election “than you usually do,” has been asked since 1994. This longer timeframe provides much needed perspective. More voters report high-than-usual enthusiasm this year than in any national election between 1994 and 2002. Enthusiasm this year far exceeds that in 1996, a year that suffered from very low voter turnout.

A measure like this one, which asks respondents to rate their enthusiasm compared to other elections in which they’ve voted, is also particularly susceptible to changing expectations – and short memories. If 2008 was an unusually exciting election for many voters, subsequent elections may look worse in comparison.

Enthusiasm compared to other elections 1994-2016


There is some indication that enthusiasm for this election has waned over the election cycle. Enthusiasm peaked during the primary debates and hit a low just before the conventions. Enthusiasm now is roughly at the same level as it was before the primary season was fully underway last year.


2016 Election enthusiasm over time


Who is feeling the excitement this cycle? The most recent CBS/NYT poll has 45% of Trump supporters saying that are very enthusiastic. Just 36% of those intending to vote Clinton feel the same way.  But different language might yield somewhat different results. In an late August Suffolk/USA Today poll, roughly equal proportions of Clinton and Trump backers said they were excited about the election (27% and 26%), while 53% of Clinton supporters and 47% of Trump supporters said they were alarmed.  Alarm is far from excitement or enthusiasm, but it may be enough to get voters to the polls.

None of the Above: Polling and Third-Party Candidates

Another election, another chance for a third-party campaign to draw away voters from a major party candidate and effect the election outcome. Maybe.  Some wonder if, with a divided Republican party on the right and some possible holdouts from the Sanders campaign on the left, the campaigns of Jill Stein or Gary Johnson might have more serious repercussions than those of other minor-party candidates. But the history of third-party candidate performance in polling and the returns indicates that the impact of these campaigns is likely to be limited to a few states, and polling is likely to overstate third-party support.

Some of the most interesting American third-party campaigns – like those of Socialist Eugene Debs and the most successful third-party candidate in U.S. history, former president Theodore Roosevelt – predate the polling era. After the advent of polling in the 1930s, the 1948 election was the first to include third-party candidates that drew significant support. A reborn Progressive Party nominated former FDR vice-president and cabinet member Henry Wallace, and Strom Thurmond headed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, formed in opposition to President Harry Truman’s growing support of civil rights. The last national Gallup poll in October had Wallace at 3% and Thurmond at 2%, and they received 2.37% and 2.41% of the vote respectively—a close match, even in a year infamous for forecasting failures when pollsters stopped field work too soon to catch last-minute shifts. Third party support did have regional influence. Thurmond received 39 electoral votes by carrying four Southern states, a sign of the regional nature of his appeal. This pattern of low overall third-party voting with decent regional showings would be repeated two decades later.

In 1968, the Democratic Party again split, with George Wallace’s American Independent Party forming to protest the Democrats’ opposition to segregation. Wallace got 13.53% of the popular vote, winning five Southern states and 46 electoral votes. He received almost ten million votes, nearly a third of the totals of either Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey. Nixon won 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, despite their vote totals being only 0.7% apart, so the support Wallace received outside the South may well have been an important factor in deciding the outcome. He received over 10% of the vote in eighteen states he did not win, including three where he received over 30%. Wallace’s 13.53% national support actually slightly underperformed his final polling numbers, as an October Gallup poll had him at 17%. Wallace would be the penultimate third-party candidate to get more than 10% of the vote, and the last for nearly three decades.

The next notable third-party campaign came in 1980 with John Anderson’s Independent bid after his failed Republican primary effort. Positioning himself as a more practical alternative to George H.W. Bush’s economic policies, Anderson won 6.61% of the electorate, nearly six million votes, but only broke 10% in nine states. In contrast to third-party candidates in 1948 and 1968, most of Anderson’s strongest support came from New England. Anderson underperformed his polls. An NBC/AP poll in October had him at 10%, well above the 6.6% he actually received. Even so, only one third-party candidate has bettered those totals since.

Ross Perot was the last third-party candidate to garner substantial support. His deficit reduction and anti-free-trade economic policies formed the centerpiece of his 1992 campaign. In June polls from Harris and Gallup he led Bush and Clinton with a high of 38% support. His popularity suffered after a bizarre exit-from-and-reentry-to the race starting in July and lasting several weeks. His polls never recovered. By the final ABC poll in early November, Perot’s support had dropped to 18%, which almost exactly matched his final vote percentage of 18.91%. He received just under twenty million votes, but despite some claims to the contrary, exit polls show that he drew fairly equally from Bush and Clinton. Perot ran again as the Reform Party’s candidate in 1996 and got 8.4% of the vote, close to the findings in a November US News survey that had him at 9%. As in 1992, exit polling suggests his support did not come disproportionately from either side.

Four years later the Green Party’s Ralph Nader became the last third-party candidate to get more than one percent of the vote. In 2000’s historically close contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Nader’s role was controversial. The Reform Party nominated Pat Buchanan, providing alternative candidates on both left and right, but his support fell below Nader’s. In the November Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, Nader was at 4% and Buchanan at 1%, but both underperformed their polling. Nader received 2.74% and Buchanan 0.43% of the vote. Following Bush’s 271-266 electoral victory after resolution of the disputed Florida ballot count in the Supreme Court, Nader came under criticism for having tipped the balance there. Given that the winning margin was a mere 537 votes and Nader received 97,488 votes in the Sunshine State, it is mathematically plausible that his campaign affected the final results. It should, however, be noted that other minor candidates also received over 40,000 combined votes, but were rarely blamed by Democrats for Gore’s loss.

Nader ran again in 2004 and 2008, but his impact remained minimal. Polls still overstated his eventual support. In 2004 a November Gallup poll had him at 1% and he received 0.38%, while the gap in 2008 was even more notable: he polled 5% in the final November CNN/ORC poll but got only 0.56% of the total on Election Day. He has not run since.

Pollsters often omit from their horserace questions those minor-party candidates who are not already famous. Besides Anderson in 1980, Barry Commoner of the Citizens Party and Ed Clark of the Libertarian Party were included in the October NBC/AP poll, with each polling 1%. Clark matched that at 1.06% of the vote, but Commoner got only 0.27%. The final CBS poll in the 1988 election included options to support Ron Paul of the Libertarian Party and Lenora Fulani of the New Alliance Party. Both polled under half a percent and got the same in the actual vote, 0.47% for Paul and 0.24% for Fulani. The next Libertarian to make the polls was Michael Badnarik in 2004. He received 1% support in a September Gallup poll and only 0.32% on Election Day. In 2008 there were questions about Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party and Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party, who continued the trend of doing better in the polls than on Election Day. Barr polled 2% in the final CNN/ORC survey and McKinney less than half a percent—he got 0.4% of the final vote; she got 0.12%. Four years ago, the pattern remained the same, with new candidates Gary Johnson for the Libertarians and Jill Stein for the Greens. The final November CNN/ORC poll had them at 3% for Johnson and 1% for Stein, with the actual results 0.99% for Johnson and 0.36% for Stein.

Given the atypical dynamics of a race with two major candidates with historically-high unfavorability ratings, Stein and Johnson may be luckier this round. In the past, the third-party candidates with the most success have been ones already well-known to the public, led of course by Theodore Roosevelt. Perot was also known as a businessman before running and had even been the subject of a movie. Nader’s career as one of America’s first notable consumer activists made him familiar to many Americans. The polling and voting results show quite clearly that third-party candidates face an immense task in trying to influence the election at all. Johnson and Stein being repeat candidates could help in that regard. This election would appear to be perhaps their best possible chance to maximize both their poll numbers and actual final vote tallies. Some polls have had Johnson breaking into double digits, and Stein maxing at around half that. If these support levels were matched in the vote, both would receive support not seen since highest totals since Perot. However, the history of polling suggest both candidates are likely to underperform their polls in the final vote.

Carl Brown is iPOLL Acquisitions Manager. He has been with the Roper Center since 1999, and currently collects and prepares new polls for entry into the iPOLL system and selects poll questions for our daily Twitter and Facebook feeds. He has a B.A. in Modern European History and an M.A. in American History from the University of Connecticut. 

Candidates and Tax Returns

Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, a decision that Hillary Clinton has denounced with ads that imply these documents hide secrets that would be devastating to her opponent’s campaign. Will this message resonate with voters? The polling seems to indicate that while the public does want to see returns, they may not consider the issue an important one.

The history of polling on candidate tax returns is not long, probably because most candidates since the 1970s have made their returns public, often providing decades’ worth of financial information. There have been occasional controversies, like the criticisms that Bill Clinton did not release enough years of data, but these debates didn’t generate enough heat to fire polling. In 2004, John Kerry released his returns, but not those of his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry.  A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 58% of the public thought spouses should release tax returns, 34% said just the candidates. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama called for Mitt Romney, who had released two years of returns, to provide more. In a July poll that year, Gallup/USA Today found 54% of the country thought Romney should release additional returns and 37% thought he should not. However, in the same poll, the country was divided on the importance of such information.  Forty-seven percent of Americans said that tax returns are largely irrelevant to helping voters decide who should be president, while 44% said returns provide legitimate information that helps voters make better decisions.

Donald Trump’s stance has made financial disclosure a larger-than-usual issue in the 2016 campaign. A CBS News/NYT poll in May found that 59% of registered voters thought it was necessary for presidential candidates to public release their tax returns; 38% said it was not necessary. A question by CNBC in June found even stronger support for disclosure. Sixty-two percent agreed more closely with the statement “Donald Trump should release his tax returns because the public has a right to know about his financial affairs if he is going to be president; 31% thought “Donald Trump should not release his tax returns because his income and financial affairs are no one’s business but his own.” When AP-NORC included the information that all major candidates had provided these returns over the last forty years, the proportion of the public saying Trump should do so reached 79%.

The Clinton ads are therefore likely to continue. It is worth noting, however, that though voters may believe Trump ought to release his tax returns, they are split over whether his unwillingness to do so is worthy of extended debate. In a May Quinnipiac poll, 46% of registered voters said Trump’s refusal to release his returns was a legitimate issue in the campaign; 51% thought it was not. As in 2012, while a solid majority of the public may prefer transparency in this area, the country is at odds over the importance of disclosure.