In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague.

How Much Do Americans Care About Russia?

August 16, 2018
Angelina Flood

Ordinary Americans care more about children’s upbringing than about Russia, claims Seth Ackerman, executive editor of Jacobin. In a July 19 post on the magazine’s blog, Ackerman writes: “[O]utside the self-enclosed vivarium that is the Twitter-cable-news-late-night-show axis, nobody actually cares about the Russia issue. In last month’s Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans mentioned ‘the situation with Russia’ as the most important problem facing the country—coming in just behind ‘Children’s behavior/Way they are raised’ and far behind ‘Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness.’”

Ackerman’s interpretation of the Gallup poll is attention-grabbing, but somewhat misleading. In surveys, after all, much depends on the way questions are framed and the answer options available. While the open-ended poll cited by Ackerman asks respondents to name the “most important problem” facing the U.S., other surveys ask them to rank “threats” from an array of choices. A look at several polls from recent years suggests that Americans see Russia as more of a threat than Ackerman acknowledges, though not as a significant domestic concern.

For example, in a 2017 Pew poll on national security threats, 47 percent of Americans saw “Russia’s power and influence” as a “major threat to our country,” ranked as No. 4 out of seven options. Pew’s 2016 survey showed similar results, with 42 percent of U.S. respondents saying that tensions with Russia were a major threat to their country. Likewise, in a February 2016 Gallup poll, 39 percent of respondents called Russia’s military power a “critical threat” to the U.S., ranking it 12th out of 12 options, while 47 percent saw it as an “important but not critical threat,” the top-ranked out of 12.

Pew Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey

Pew Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey

Americans and Europeans agree ISIS is top threat

2016 Gallup Poll on Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

That said, two recent Pew polls—like the Gallup poll cited by Ackerman—show a low level of concern among Americans about Russia when the former Cold War foe is not framed as a potential threat. A January 2018 survey asked respondents to identify their top policy priorities for President Donald Trump and Congress for 2018. Neither Russia nor election interference featured among the responses, either for this year or for 2017.

Public’s policy priorities for 2018
Public’s policy priorities for 2017

Other recent polls show somewhat more ambiguous results. For instance, in Gallup’s February 2018 poll on threats to U.S. interests, Russia was not mentioned by name, but “cyber-terrorism/use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society” came in as the No. 2 critical threat. In its analysis of the results, Gallup attributed Americans’ heightened concern about cyberattacks to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This may be true, however, in early 2016—months before the election and related talk of Russian meddling—cyberattacks already ranked as the No. 3 most feared danger to the U.S., with 73 percent of respondents calling it a critical threat to American interests (see table above), while Russia’s military power, as mentioned before, ranked much lower.

2018 Gallup Poll on Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

In short, while Ackerman may be right that pundits and news junkies attach more significance to Russia than the U.S. public at large, Russia is not missing from ordinary Americans’ threat radar altogether.

One final point: While Ackerman writes that Russia comes in “just behind” children’s behavior and upbringing as the most pressing problem facing the U.S., he doesn’t mention that the difference between the two was under one percentage point—less than the poll’s margin of error. In fact, since January 2017, the share of people naming one of the two problems as America’s most important has alternated between 1 and less than 0.5 percent, making it unclear which of them Americans consider less urgent.

July 2018 Gallup Poll on the Most Important Problem

July 2017 Gallup Poll on the Most Important Problem

Photo by MichaelBueker shared under a CC BY 3.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.