War on terrorism a priority to California voters, poll finds

Ten years after Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked jetliners, steered them into the World Trade Center towers and plunged a stunned country into a transformative war on terrorism, California voters overwhelmingly believe the fight remains a crucial priority, according to a new poll.

Four-fifths of the voters surveyed in the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll said the need to combat terrorism remained the same or was increasing. Just 13% believed the need was decreasing.

And, as the intensely ideological conflicts over how best to keep Americans safe have cooled, many voters have come to terms with once-controversial initiatives that have helped foil plans for terrorist attacks and protect the country from another deadly cataclysm.

“People have generally accepted the new status quo and want us to continue on the current course when it comes to security measures and protecting civil liberties,” said Stanley Greenberg, head of the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which polled 1,508 registered voters with the Republican firm American Viewpoint. “They don’t want to back down on the fight against terrorism, but they are generally pleased with the way it’s going.”


The state’s voters, who view President Obama favorably despite thinking he has mishandled the brackish economy, awarded him high marks for taking on terrorists, according to the survey conducted for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

A majority of California voters — men and women of all ages, races and ideologies — said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the government’s response have fundamentally changed their daily lives. But many also believe that those intrusions have been correctly calibrated.

Among the state’s voters, 46% said they believed the government had struck the right balance between restricting civil liberties and keeping the country safe, whereas 33% said it had gone too far and 15% said it had not gone far enough. Younger voters were more likely to say the restrictions were too severe.

California voters have become accustomed to invasive and inconvenient airport screening, with 53% saying the level is about right. A quarter complained of too much screening and 18% said there wasn’t enough.

Crystal Mosteiro, a 46-year-old middle school teacher from Martinez who participated in the poll, is not troubled by the air travel measures, but doubts their effectiveness. She once made it through security with her husband’s 41/2-inch folding knife forgotten in her purse.

But Mosteiro, a nonpartisan voter, does worry about a slow erosion of civil liberties. “It’s a very short step from the war on terrorism to becoming the war on domestic terrorism to the war on gangs, and therefore we can start taking those civil liberties away,” she said.

California voters leaned toward believing the United States was winning the war on terrorism, 46% to 39%, but 15% were unsure. Yet despite their support for the billions of dollars spent to hunt down terrorists and expand the country’s spying apparatus, voters only narrowly believed the country was more secure. Whereas 47% said the country was safer than it was immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, 40% said the danger level was about the same and 12% said the nation was less safe.

“We’re probably doing good, but it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to end soon. I’m afraid we might have another 9/11 somewhere in the U.S. if we’re not careful,” said Enrique Carranza, a 65-year-old San Diego Democrat who works as a hospital biowaste specialist.

Voters in California, far from the East Coast targets that Al Qaeda hit, were not all that worried that they or their families would become victims of a terrorist attack. Just 11% described themselves as very concerned, 56% were somewhat or a little concerned, and a third were not at all concerned.

As with many issues, men and women viewed terrorism differently. Men were more supportive of Obama’s handling of the issue and much more likely to believe the United States was defeating the terrorists. But they were also more critical of the effect on civil liberties and the heightened airport security. Women generally felt the country was not more secure and were more worried about being caught in an attack.

Terrorism provided a somewhat unifying force for voters when it came to views of Obama. Almost two-thirds of voters approved of how the president was handling the issue. Support was strongest among Democrats and nonpartisan voters, but he also got significant support from Republicans, who split evenly.

Obama essentially tied with former President George W. Bush when voters were asked who did more to reduce the threat of terrorism. He won 49% support among liberal voters, but even 38% of voters who support the conservative “tea party” movement believed that Obama had done more than the president who first declared the global war on terrorism.

Andrew McDougald, a 30-year-old Republican from Simi Valley, noted that Obama had stepped up use of Predator drones and approved the assault on Osama bin Laden’s hide-out. “I feel that he’s actually done better than a lot of Republicans would give him credit for,” said McDougald, an aria-singing waiter at an Italian restaurant.

The killing of the world’s most-wanted terrorist inspired about 2 in 5 to have more confidence in Obama as commander in chief. But another two-fifths were unswayed by his role in the daringly executed raid on Bin Laden’s compound.

On the most visible terrorism battleground, the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, California voters disapproved of Obama’s leadership, 52% to 41%. Just 17% of the state’s voters think the United States should do whatever is necessary to stabilize that country.

In June, Obama announced in a nationally televised speech that he would order 10,000 troops withdrawn this year and 23,000 next year, leaving 68,000 on the ground, a faster timetable than military commanders wanted. More than three-quarters of California voters want U.S. troop strength reduced, with 43% saying it should be done even more quickly than planned.

The USC Dornsife/Times poll surveyed registered voters in California from Aug. 17 to 28 by telephone in English and Spanish. The overall margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.


The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll: Results