KGOU

Pew Researcher On Americans’ Perception Of The World

Jan 12, 2018

Americans tend to be more interested in domestic policy than foreign policy, but they do pay attention and have opinions about international politics.

Jacob Poushter, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, is an expert on international polling. He has researched the image of the United States abroad, and public opinion of extremism in predominantly Muslim countries and in the West. He says domestic issues dominate political campaigns. However, some foreign policy topics like the size of the military, trade and terrorism are important to Americans.

“I think people understand how the world is connected nowadays, that it is more global in nature and that things that, you know, that happen locally do affect more people around the world,” Poushter told KGOU’s World Views.

When Americans are polled about foreign policy, Poushter says the two most topics that rank the highest are security and economic issues. Terrorism in particular ranks high.

“Security issues do rise to the top and people do realize how that is related internationally and that international policies affect how we deal with extremism around the world,” Poushter said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On public opinion of climate change

It's top three or four depending on what type of threats or issues. Obviously in the last year the North Korea threat has risen in the minds of the public. People are more worried about that than they were a couple of years ago, obviously, with provocations by the North Koreans in terms of firing missiles. But climate change is fairly high, although there was a huge political divide by party. So, you know, Democrats are much more worried about climate change than are Republicans in the U.S.. It would be higher if it was just one party versus the other. But as a total, you know, it's up there. It's not the top issue but it is still an issue on the mind of some Americans.

On public opinion of domestic vs. international issues

We do have one question that we asked of Americans this past year on whether we should pay less attention to a problem overseas or what's best for a future to be active in world affairs. And on that question there is definitely splits by region, by age, by party and by education. So you know the college-educated Democrats and those in the Northeast are more concerned about being active in world affairs, while those in, you know, younger people, which is sort of different, those with a high school education or less, and Republicans are more interested in paying attention to issues at home.

So it really does matter about where you live, your your age, what party what your party affiliation is, that determines a lot of these responses. And that's an important part of polling because it's not just the overall numbers what we call the top line numbers. It's digging deeper to understand why people have the opinions they do and what makes them think the way they do.

On the image of the United States in the world

International image of the United States has dropped in many countries in which we surveyed. We think this has a lot to do with views of the U.S. president, which have also changed drastically over the past year. At the end of the Obama presidency, about 64 percent of people across the world, this is a median of people across the world, had confidence in the U.S. president, President Obama, and now only about 22 percent have confidence in President Trump. So we do see a sort of deterioration of U.S. image that is closely tied to the election of a new president. And I will say that similar ratings were found for George Bush in 2008, 2007 before at the end of his presidency as well. So that does affect how how people view the U.S. around the world. It affects a lot of other issues in terms of, you know, support for U.S. policies and support for Americans overall. So there has been a big change. But overall people still have fairly positive views of Americans, fairly positive views of American pop culture, and still say that the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. So not everything is down. But there are a lot of indicators that show that the international image of the U.S. has declined in the last year.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Jacob Poushter, welcome to World Views.

Jacob Poushter: Thank you for having me.

Grillot: It's great to have you here. And I'm really excited to talk about the work that you do at the Pew Research Center. As somebody working in polls and public opinion polling, global attitudes and that sort of thing. So but first I want to start with just kind of this general sense that I think many of us have that Americans are kind of by and large not as interested in global affairs as they are in domestic affairs. That they would, you know, when asked I think that they seem to prefer, seem to have more interest in, or consider domestic issues to be more important to them. Is that kind of what you, what you, find? What is some of the data on that?

Poushter: In general, yes, when people are asked whether they should be more interested in foreign policy or domestic policy, they tend to pick domestic policy. People are more interested in what happens in their lives, local, state and national, than they are internationally. But, when we do ask them about international affairs, when they when we ask them about events that happen around the world they actually are interested. They answer our questions and they you know are involved in that kind of conversation, once we ask about it.

Grillot: Do you think that there's a real understanding among the general population about the connections between domestic and international affairs? That, you know, trade issues, obviously, global trade is connected to one's local employment for example. So is there kind of a general sense that there's a positive attitude about that?

Poushter: I think people understand how the world is connected nowadays, that it is more global in nature and that things that, you know, that happen locally do affect more people around the world than had in the past. And indeed, you know, while economic issues and domestic issues tend to be on the top during campaigns and all those things, we do talk a lot about the size of our military. Fighting terrorism overseas. NATO alliance was a big campaign issue last year. So it's not like these issues are off the table. People I think recognize, them understand them. It's just when paired against, you know, the local economic issues, they often don't rise to the level of interest that global affairs do.

Grillot: So maybe with the exception of security policy. I mean since you just raised it, you know, terrorism and kind of issues regarding foreign policy in terms of war and conflict and those sorts of things. I think the American public has concerns about the economy and jobs and that sort of thing. But do you see that there's growing and serious concern about security policy around the world?

Poushter: Typically the two highest issues on people's minds are terrorism issues, you know, security and economic issues. They're certainly, you know, very different but they're also intertwined and obviously with terrorism there is an international component to it. You know people when we asked in a survey this year of Americans what they think is the greatest threat to our country that the most people chose ISIS as the top threat to the United States and it was clearly the top threat with other threats being cyber security and climate change and global economic instability. So you do see that know those kinds of issues terrorism, security issues do rise to the top and people do realize how that is related internationally and that international policies affect how we deal with extremism around the world.

Grillot: So the fact that ISIS or cyber security makes it into that list doesn't really surprise me, but climate change. I mean you find in general across the population that climate change ranks in one of the top issues?

Poushter: It's top three or four depending on what type of threats or issues. Obviously in the last year the North Korea threat has risen in the minds of the public. People are more worried about that than they were a couple of years ago, obviously, with provocations by the North Koreans in terms of firing missiles. But climate change is fairly high, although there was a huge political divide by party. So, you know, Democrats are much more worried about climate change than are Republicans in the U.S.. It would be higher if it was just one party versus the other. But as a total, you know, it's up there. It's not the top issue but it is still an issue on the mind of some Americans.

Grillot: I think that's an important point is that obviously polling also breaks things down by demographics. Right. So in terms of maybe you know gender, location, you know, urban, rural, party, all various kinds of things. So can you tell us about some of the results regarding in the United States before we get to this tricky subject of polling in general.

Poushter: I mean it really does depend on what kind of question we ask. We do have one question that we asked of Americans this past year on whether we should pay less attention to a problem overseas or what's best for a future to be active in world affairs. And on that question there is definitely splits by region by age by party and by education. So you know the college-educated Democrats and those in the Northeast are more concerned about being active in world affairs, while those in, you know, younger people, which is sort of different, those with a high school education or less, and Republicans are more interested in paying attention to issues at home. So it really does matter about where you live, your your age, what party what your party affiliation is, that determines a lot of these responses. And that's an important part of polling because it's not just the overall numbers what we call the top line numbers. It's digging deeper to understand why people have the opinions they do and what makes them think the way they do.

Grillot: So on this issue of polling of course because I don't know it just seems to me that that's kind of an elephant in the room. As you know there are a lot of skeptics out there about polls. Now let's be fair to what you do and that is what you do is not election polling, you're not doing exit polling, you're not doing those sorts of things. Help us understand the distinction between that kind of polling and the public opinion polling that you're doing.

Poushter: Sure. Well, election polling starts with the same concept where you take a group of people and you want to be representative of that group. So when I say Americans think this or that, it's a nationally representative group of Americans that are chosen through probability sampling telephone interviews. But when you get to election polling, you then have to determine what group of people among those general public are going to vote. And that's where the big issues come in. Because the turnout of an election could be very different than the census. And what the census is telling you is the breakdown of the entire country. So that's that's where political polling tends to miss the most. But there are other issues in polling nowadays. We have low response rates, which means that people are less likely to pick up the phone from an unknown number. That's a big problem nowadays. It's hard sometimes to get to hard-to-reach populations that might be skeptical of people calling their homes. This includes minority groups and includes younger Americans and includes people who are more distrustful of government organizations or anyone who might call them. So that's an also another issue where people are less likely to talk to pollsters than they were in the past. And all those things create biases that make it harder to you know say that something is representative of the entire population.

Poushter: But we don't go that extra step in terms of you know trying to judge turnout so we're pretty confident in our methods to get a statistically proportional sample of the countries in which we survey included the United States. And we work pretty hard to make sure that you know we're methodologically sound. And we are also looking to new areas of doing polling, online polling, smartphone text polling, you know, other other ways to reach people and try to answer the questions in which we're interested.

Poushter: I mean you raised so many interesting factors that affect what it is that you do in polling. And I mean I have to admit even when I'm in the classroom, you know, I hear from students that they're -- and these are young people largely -- that are skeptical of polling, they don't necessarily want to be bothered with having to answer polls. But you mentioned all the other things like just being able to reach people because of the cellular technology that we now have, fewer landlines, all the ways in which you know we now do more of our work online. So given all of that I mean you said you're pretty confident in how you know in your results but it's just making your job I would think all the more difficult. And then when you add to it the fact that you're working around the world, you're not just polling in the United States, you're pulling in 38 countries to look at global attitudes and global affairs. So I mean you are comparing here and there must be even more challenging.

Poushter: It is. We have we have actually a pretty large group but the Pew Research Center of methodology us, both international and domestic, who work on these issues who try to make sure that we're keeping up with the standards, you know, the latest ways of doing survey techniques to make sure that we're doing it correct. And internationally we actually poll differently in many of the countries in which we survey. Some countries, it's we only call cell phones. Some countries it's a mix of cell phones and landlines. And in a lot of countries that are developing on our country list such as India, South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, in places in Latin America, Africa and Asia, we do face to face polling which means that if we want to ask someone a question we send them to a certain section of the city they walk around in a certain grid pattern, knock on someone's door, talk to them for 45 minutes, record the results, and send it back to us. So we always have to know you know whether the comparability of talking to someone in their home how that might differ from talking to someone on the phone. Obviously, you know, a phone call probably can't last past 20 minutes because people have things to do and we'll hang up and that's not a good thing. While people, if you invite them in their homes, will take a little more time. So there are differences in how we do our polling but we try to maintain a similar level of you know methodology across the country so that we can have cross-national comparability, which is a very important aspect of what we do because we want to see how Americans fit into the global worldview. And we also want to see how the world sees America. And so that's an important part of what we do and what we try to bring to the general public and public advocates.

Grillot: So on that note, tell us what your findings are about perceptions of the United States.

Poushter: Sure. Well in the last year it has actually changed quite a bit. International image of the United States has dropped in many countries in which we surveyed. We think this has a lot to do with views of the U.S. president which have also changed drastically over the past year. At the end of the Obama presidency, about 64 percent of people across the world, this is a median of people across the world, had confidence in the U.S. president, President Obama, and now only about 22 percent have confidence in President Trump. So we do see a sort of deterioration of U.S. image that is closely tied to the election of a new president. And I will say that similar ratings were found for George Bush in 2008, 2007 before at the end of his presidency as well. So that does affect how how people view the U.S. around the world. It affects a lot of other issues in terms of you know support for U.S. policies and support for Americans overall. So there has been a big change. But overall people still have fairly positive views of Americans, fairly positive views of American pop culture, and still say that the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. So not everything is down. But there are a lot of indicators that show that the international image of the U.S. has declined in the last year.

Grillot: Well I'd love to ask all kinds of questions about this. And just to reiterate of course Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan organization. I mean because there's obviously political connotation to what you're finding here but on this issue of image, I mean, from my travels around the world and I've traveled extensively and I've lived overseas many times, is that this distinction that you just made between perceptions of our views of Americans or U.S. citizens and U.S. culture -- that that's an important distinction to make between that and U.S. policy or U.S. leaders and how the people that are doing things like engaging with other with other countries, the high profile people like our president, that that's an important distinction to make and it sounds like you're making that in your polling.

Poushter: Yes, it is clear that the overall views of the U.S. tend to align with overall views of the U.S. president. I mean people you know how they receive their information overseas there's only so much you can know about another country and it seems as though you don't in terms of politics the president is the biggest figure on the stage for that and highly influences U.S. image. But on the soft power image, it's a little more diffuse it doesn't change as much it's not as subject to political changes. But, you know, events do happen and people do change their opinions based on those events like the Iraq wars. One instance of that were George Bush was more popular before that war and then became less popular overseas afterwards. President Obama was more popular before some of the NSC information came out in Germany, for example, where there was accusations of tapping Angela Merkel's phone, and his favor ability fell in Germany after that, too. So world events do influence how the rest of the world view Americans. But the election of a president seems to be one of the largest events for that kind of image.

Grillot: Well so can we just conclude with this notion. I mean obviously you do your polling for a reason. It's obviously to inform us to tell us exactly what's going on around the world so that we maybe could make better policy. What should we do with this information? What does the Pew Center do in terms of sharing this information to try and effect? I mean should this kind of information, should this type of polling, actually affect policy in the kinds of decisions that we're making?

Poushter: Well it's our hope that people take this information and use it to make sound policy decisions. We don't advocate for any particular policy decisions or advocate for any particular partisan group. We just want to put out the information that we think is most accurate of how the world thinks, how Americans think about various issues from public policy to politics to views of the Internet, technology, global threats. There's a whole variety of research areas in which we do this research, both survey public opinion survey and also demographic research as well. And the goal is ultimately so that people are more knowledgeable about the world, that they understand better, that both American publics and world publics, you know, have a better handle on what people around the world think so that they can, you know, especially you know educators, policy, people who make policy, and you know those who are those who advise people who make policy, just sort of understand the basic facts before they try to create policy without that information. So that's the benefit we hope to provide. And we also we know that we can't always say everything that we want. We can't always find all the information. It's you know there's only so much you can do with public opinion research. But we do our best to make sure that it's accurate, that it's nonpartisan, non advocacy, and that it's used to to better society.

Grillot: Alright, Jacob. Well that's a really great boost for the concept of facts, right. Thank you very much for being here today. I look forward to learning more about your polling as I think we all do. Thanks so much.

Poushter: Thanks for having me.

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