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How Terrorism and the Economy Swing the Public Opinion Pendulum

How Terrorism and the Economy Swing the Public Opinion Pendulum

The Law of PhysicsHow can you expect to know what people are thinking unless you ask?

Every day, we ask Americans to tell us the single issue that matters the most to them at that moment. They can choose from jobs and the economy, health care, terrorism, education, the environment, immigration, and foreign policy.

Other polls ask similar questions, but they miss a lot of nuance because the polls aren’t truly ongoing. They’re fielded at only certain points in time, which mean they have start dates and end dates—and coverage gaps when they’re not collecting information.

SurveyMonkey polls Americans every day. This allows us to easily distinguish gradual changes from sudden ones, and it demonstrates how current events can change and shape public opinion.

Big jumps and gradual shifts

As the presidential primaries began heating up in the months leading up to March, practically every one of the (numerous) candidates had something to say about the economy.

At the same time, we watched respondents to our public opinion polls slowly but steadily become more concerned with “jobs and the economy.”

Between December and mid-March, respondents who chose this as the most important issue rose from 23% to a high of 36%, never moving by more than 4% in a week.

Then, on March 22, something happened. 3 suicide bombers killed 32 people in Brussels, Belgium.

The world, and the U.S. public, watched. Meanwhile, we watched public opinion in the U.S. shift its focus onto terrorism.

Immediately following the attacks, the percentage of Americans who viewed terrorism as the single most important issue jumped from 12% to 18% and then 19% the following week.

Just days before, terrorism was only the third most important issue to Americans, behind “jobs and the economy” at 36% and “healthcare” at 15%.


But public opinion reverts quickly

But today, Americans’ focus on terrorism has fallen back down to pre-Brussels levels. It’s now just 14%, back in the third-place spot it was at a month ago.

If a spike like that seems surprising, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t even the first time this kind of shift has happened. It’s not even the first time it’s happened in the past 6 months.

The week before the Brussels attacks, the importance Americans placed on terrorism was polling at the lowest point it had ever reached since we began asking the question in December.

At that time, concern about terrorism had reached a high point of 28%. That peak came in the aftermath of a different terrorist attack—this one closer to home in San Bernardino, California.

Other polls might miss that jump (or steep decline). That’s why polling every month isn’t enough. A poll that didn’t include data from the week of March 21-27 would have made it look like Americans’ opinions on terrorism barely changed.

Polling every day means you’re able to watch shifts in public opinion change in real time, without any coverage gaps.

What’s more is that the tool is sophisticated enough to spot trends that are hard to see from the surface.

Peeling back the onion

Sometimes, looking at the big picture obscures an important change in the opinions of a smaller  group.

For example, it turns out that the sudden rise of concern about terrorism was felt mostly among conservatives.

Among voters who describe themselves as “very conservative,” the percent selecting “terrorism” jumped from 15% to 30% in the week following the attacks in Brussels.

Meanwhile, voters who describe themselves as “conservative,” had a smaller increase—from 18% to 25%.

The further left you go on the ideological spectrum, the less pronounced the concern over terrorism is. By the time you get to respondents who consider themselves “very liberal,” you see respondents whose opinion on the matter barely budges over the course of three weeks.


Maybe it’s no surprise that people have strong reactions to acts of terror or that political messages can change their priorities. Maybe, given the frenetic pace of the modern news cycle, it’s not even that surprising how fast those reactions and changes happen.

But it’s striking to see in real-time just how dynamic and malleable perception of the most important issues really is.

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