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Pro-National Missile Defense Advocates' Shameless Distortion of Public Opinion
3 September 1998

John Isaacs, Council for a Livable World

Critique of a July 26-29 Public Opinion Survey
on National Missile Defense for the Center for Security Policy

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In their eagerness to promote their crusade, advocates of early deployment of a National Missile Defense are relying on shameless distortion of public opinion attitudes. They exaggerate their support in part to convince the Republican party to attempt to make missile defense a defining political issue for November.

Partially as a result of these polls, both the Senate and House are expected to vote on National Missile Defense deployment in the next weeks before adjournment.

The most recent example came in a July 26 - 29 public opinion survey for the Center for Security Policy and other organizations conducted by The Polling Company, a Republican polling firm. The survey of 800 registered voters was released at a July 30 press conference.

Frank Gaffney claims the polls show "overwhelming public support for defending America." He came to this conclusion employing classic techniques to skew the results in his favor.

1. Ask a series of preliminary questions to elevate concern about your issue.

Before asking whether respondents support or oppose missile defenses, the Gaffney poll asked 19 questions that served to get the respondents in the proper frame of mind, i.e., sympathetic to National Missile Defense deployment.

There were four questions to remind people about the continuing Russian threat; five questions to prompt people about the Chinese threat; four questions raising doubts about the Administration's contention that there are no missiles pointed at the U.S.; three questions about the "rogue nations" danger; and three questions to tell people the U.S. now has no defense against long-range ballistic missiles. After all these questions designed to produce the correct result, the survey asks in question #20:

"Given the fact that the United States cannot currently stop even one incoming missile, do you favor or oppose deployment of a missile defense?"

When in the next to last question Gaffney asks about support or opposition to a missile defense bill introduced by Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, he does so after asking 29 questions that frighten the public. Not surprisingly, Gaffney found 81% of the public agrees with the intent of the Cochran bill.

Question 30: "Do you agree or disagree with the following statement 'I believe that it should be our government's policy to deploy effective missile defenses as soon as technologically possible?'"

2. Include an introductory "scare" clause in the question about support for missile defense deployment.

Having asked those 19 introductory questions, the Gaffney poll could not resist including an introductory "scare" clause in the question (#20) asking about favoring or opposing deployment of missile defenses. To ensure the "correct" result, Gaffney began the key question: "Given the fact that the United States cannot currently stop even one incoming missile . . ." [see complete question above]

3. Low-ball costs for deploying a National Missile Defense and compare to an unpopular cause.

The latest General Accounting Office estimate is that present plans for deployment will cost between $18 and $28 billion. It is very likely that the ultimate costs will go much higher. Rather than use a realistic estimate, Gaffney asks whether respondents would be willing to spend $3 billion "to begin defending the United States against missile attacks." The U.S. is already spending $4 billion annually on all forms of missile defense. The same question (#22) compares this modest $3 billion to the $10 billion spent to date on peacekeeping in Bosnia.

Question 22: "The U.S. has spent approximately $10 billion to date on peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. Would you be willing to spend less than half as much -- say, $3 billion -- to begin defending the United States against missile attacks?"

4. Compare to a straw-person, a non-existent alternative.

To determine if the public would be willing to accept less-than-perfect missile defenses, Gaffney (#24) gives as the alternative a system "that will destroy 100% of attacking missiles." As a system that is 100% foolproof does not now exist and is an impossibility for the future (what weapons or machinery are ever 100% foolproof?), the choice presented is a false one.

Question 24: "Do you think it would be worthwhile to begin deploying defenses even if they might not be able to stop every attacking missile or should we wait until we are able to deploy a system that will destroy 100% of all attacking missiles?"

Similarly, Gaffney asks (#25) whether respondents would support a candidate who believes there is a threat of missile attack versus one that "believes there is no such danger." There are no responsible officials who doubt that there is some danger of attack; there are many reliable individuals who question the likelihood of such a threat and the best means to respond.

Question 25: "Congressional Candidate A believes that there is a threat of ballistic missile attack against the United States and promises to work to deploy missile defenses. Candidate B believes there is no such danger and will oppose the deployment of missile defenses. Would you be more likely to vote for Candidate A or Candidate B?"

5. Convince people that they believe something that is not true.

Gaffney asks a question (#26) designed to elicit a favorable response from the public believing in the efficacy of American technology, the "can-do" philosophy that created the atomic bomb and placed a man on the moon. His survey found that 78% of respondents believe that the U.S. already has the technology to build effective defenses against a missile attack. Except that no such technology now exists, and it has not after more than 40 years of research and the expenditure of more than $100 billion. It may exist in the future, but that future is years away if ever.

Question 26: "Do you believe the United States has the technology to build effective defenses against incoming ballistic missiles."

Gaffney is not the only one to cook the numbers. In mid-July, the Republican National Committee felt compelled to stack the deck with a question on ballistic missile defense by including introductory "scare" material. The question:

"Recent reports say the Chinese have 13 long range missiles targeted at the west coast of America. Knowing this, would you favor or oppose an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending US territory against limited ballistic missile attack?"

Results of the stacked deck:

55% Strongly favor; 21% Somewhat favor
9% Somewhat oppose, 10% Strongly oppose

A more practical alternative: Three Lines of Missile Defense

1. A highly cost-effective interlocking set of treaties and agreements is our first line of defense against the threat of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction.

2. Even if this line is breached, it is highly unlikely that the weapons would be used because of a second line of defense: the threat of devastating retaliation.

3. If these two lines should not prove sufficient, the final and third line could be active defensive systems. While effective defenses against missiles outside the atmosphere seem impractical (because they could so easily be overwhelmed by light-weight decoys and other countermeasures), it may make sense to go ahead with upgraded versions of systems such as the Army PAC-3 and the Navy Upper Tier defense -- if the technology proves effective.