The Terrorism Threat Index-Proof of Concept

The Homeland Security Advisory System, those famous color-coded threat bars, were developed by the government after 9/11 to tell us how worried, concerned, fearful, etc. we should be regarding the threat of a terrorist attack.

It's a one-way system. There's no systematic nor comprehensive feedback on the issue from the public. Further, it's going on five years now since 9/11 and no ongoing public poll, to my knowledge, has provided an easy-to-understand summary of how Americans perceive the threat of terrorist attack. Sure, these polls ask questions on occasion, but there's no integrated system, or index measure, that's been developed and tracked regularly over time.

Major polls have just such indexes for consumerism/economic behavior. Good ones, too. Witness the plethora  available at the Polling Report website. Funny how consumerism trumps terrorism as an issue deemed worthy of significant polling resources and measurement efforts, eh? Shocking, I say.

In our view, it's time voters are able to tell elected officials, business and community leaders how worried, concerned, fearful, etc. they should be regarding public perceptions of a terrorist attack. Let's complete the feedback loop. The MyDD Poll, again breaking new ground, designed just such a assessment into this poll: the Terrorism Threat Index. It's a basic assessment in this poll due to funding limitations and time constraints with a relatively short interview. We couldn't ask a whole series of questions about it. However, this post shows how the concept works, providing clear summary information through only five questions. The Index easily can and should be expanded with more measures and developed into a robust summary of  voter perceptions of threat of the terrorist attack. Here's how it works...

We asked five key questions in the poll that get at how voters feel about a terrorist threat:

1)    A job performance rating on the federal government's efforts protecting America since 9/11,
2)    A rating on personal feelings of safety and security since 9/11,
3)    A rating on worry about a terrorist attack on the country in the next year,
4)    A rating on worry that Osama bin Laden has not been captured,
5)    And a rating on personal confidence in federal emergency response should a terror attack or other man-made or natural disaster occur in one's local area.

After all poll questions are released (we're rolling them all out over the weekend and through Tuesday), you'll note they all are based on five-point scales. Thus, these questions were combined into a five-point summary measure, mirroring the Homeland Security System: Low, Guarded, Elevated, High and Severe. Here are the results by demography:

                                  (1)         (2)               (3)               (4)           (5)         Avg. 1-5
                                   Low      Guarded      Elevated      High       Severe   Point Score

United States:              6%        28%            39%           23%         4%         2.91 (Elevated)

Region (* p=.007):
Northeast                      7           27               33              30             3            2.96
South                            8           33               37              19             3            2.76
Midwest                         6           26                41              23            4             2.94
Rockies                          3           31                47              16            3             2.85
West Coast, AK, HI        3           19                47              24            7            3.12

Party (* p=.000):
Democrat                      3          13                 44              32            8            3.31
Republican                   10         44                32              13            1             2.50
Indep/Other/No party    6          27                41              23            3             2.90

Gender (* p=.000):
Male                              9           33               38                17            3            2.72
Female                          4           23                40                28           5            3.08

Ethnicity (* p=.009):
Anglo                            6           28                40                21           4            2.88
Minority                        5           22                34                32           6            3.12

Household income(* p=.044):
Under $25K                   3           25                38               27           7            3.08
$25K to $49.9K             7           26                44               19          4             2.87
$50K to $74.9K             6           30                38               21          4             2.86
$75K and over               6          31                37                24         2              2.84

Residence (p=.742):
Urban                              8          28                33                26          5             2.93
Suburban                         5          30                37                23         5              2.93
Rural                                6          26                46                20          2             2.88

Religious orientation (* p=.000):
Fund./Evangelical           8          37                40                13          1              2.61
Mainstream                     7          32                38                21          2              2.80
Liberal                             2          18                43                29          8              3.23

<Jan. '06 Osama bin Laden tape (p=.151)</b>
Before release                  7           29               42                18          4              2.83
After release                    6            27              38                 25          4             2.94

(The * notation next to demographic variables/questions denotes a statistically significant difference at the 95% level or greater from the US sample average/mean. The `p=' notation indicates the level of that significance. Any number under .05 is significant and the closer the value is to .000 the stronger the significance.)

The table shows there are statistically significant differences from the US average index score regarding region of the country, party registration, gender, ethnicity, income and religious orientation. Differences are not significant regarding residence and the OBL tape.

An easy way to see what's happening in the table is to look at the percentages and, by combining High and Severe, you can see the differences. 27% of US voters fall in the combined High/Severe end of the index. Voters in the South (22%) and Rockies (19%), Republicans (14%), men (20%), fundamentalist/evangelical (14%) and mainstream religious (23%) voters are least likely to follow suit. They simply are less worried about the threat of a terrorist attack.

Not so with voters in the Northeast (33%) and West Coast (31%), Democrats (40%), women (33%), minority voters (38%), those with the least household income (34%) and liberal religious voters. They are most likely to fall into the high end of the index.

Again the profile of voter division discussed in the MyDD Poll: Release 1 Detail post pops up. This also gets to Chris' insightful analysis from his post yesterday: Republicans are much more positive on the questions having to do with terrorist attack than are Democrats and, to a lesser degree, Independents.

The above shows this is the case in the additional slices of the two main voter profiles discussed yesterday. Those least concerned about a terrorist threat are not only Republicans, they are fundamentalist/evangelical voters, mainstream religious voters, voters in the South, Rockies and men. This is the `rose-colored glasses' group, as I described them. Voters most concerned fit the second profile, the `more measured' group: those in the Northeast, West Coast, Democrats, women, minority voters, those with the least income and those religiously liberal. Some might call them progressives, yes?

As a professional researcher, I'm also entitled to express my opinion about what all this means, as long as I specify that it's my opinion. And the following is my opinion about what we really see in these data.

On the rose-colored right-wing group, it's summarized in the popular `101st Fighting Keyboarders' concept. They talk the tough guy talk, but they don't walk the walk. They say they're tough on terrorism, but they really are not concerned, as we now see. Whether they feel secure because they tend to be affluent and can buy anti-anthrax pills or drive their SUV's out of the suburbs in an emergency or whether they are believers in impending Rapture or whatever is irrelevant. The fact shown above is they are less concerned about these issues than are most other Americans. They are wearing rose-colored glasses, especially when bin Laden declares "Operations are under preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once they are finished, God willing.". There you go.

In the meantime, it is the progressive group that is actually focused on the threat of terrorism. They score significantly higher on the Index. They're more worried about an impending attack (see link above), more worried the US hasn't captured or killed bin Laden (see link above), more measured in their evaluation of post-9/11 federal efforts on the security front and more concerned about personal safety and security. See Chris' Second Release post. They're paying attention, clearly.

This situation benefits Bush and the right-wing mightily, I think. Their supporters are sanguine normally but, with a punch of the Homeland Security Advisory System they can crank them up dramatically, "Oh, my God", to generate vocal support for the Patriot Act, torture, whatever controversial action they want. And, at the same time, criticize progressives for being 'soft on terrorism'.

And in the 'off' periods, they can belittle and downplay progressives' insistence that all is not well. Changes need to happen. Now. Double-edged sword, you see. Sweet, very sweet. For them.

The question is how to combat it, turn it. In this regard, we'll be looking at directional indicators for progressive strategy in upcoming posts.

There you have it, folks, for now. The original Sun Tzu talked about understanding the battlefield before you know how to win. I hope we all know more about the battlefield now. It's complex, nuanced and we've got a ways to go before we can rest. In my view, Republican corruption and scandal will help us in November, but it doesn't solve the problem highlighted above.

Thoughts, comments welcome and appreciated.

Tags: MyDD Poll, poll detailed analysis, poll findings, Terrorism Threat Index (all tags)



Very Interesting AND Perplexing

The most extensive research I'm aware of shows that people on the right are general more fearful of more things than people on the left.  This comes from Robert Altemeyer's 30+ years of research into Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA).  There are some caveats, but they don't negate the basic finding--which also dovetails with other findings of academic researchers. These include:

(1) Altemeyer didn't spend all that time looking into fearfulness.  But his findings on people's fears meshed with a much larger, integrated picture.  

(2) It wasn't a direct right/left correlation. The correlation was with RWA, which in turn is correlated with conservatism, but not identical.  And the correlation is much stronger with those who are politically engaged than with those whoe merely vote--or even mostly don't.

(3) It wasn't polling data. It came from studies of students and occassionally their parents.

Still, with all these qualifications, it's striking to find that conservatives/Republicans are less worried.  What Altemeyer found was that those with high RWA were most likely to say that many different problems were our "number one problem," and to think that something needed to be done about it.

Precisely because these findings are so contrary, that makes them even more significant, IMHO.  But I'm still too busy scratching my head over their mere existence to hazard a coherent theory as to what that significance is.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-01-29 04:28PM | 0 recs
Re: The Terrorism Threat Index-Proof of Concept
It is very, very interesting, isn't it Paul? And the crosstabs with it on data coming out (Iraq, NSA, etc.) are even more so. My thinking at this point is that it may have more to do with successful communications by Bush/Rove and the MSM than with personal orientation (RWA) toward political issues, as you note. In other words, these right-wing folks in the sample are fully bought into favorable Administration/media messaging. Thus, Dubya's doing great on protecting us, so why worry? He's got the threat covered, we're good to go.

In that sense, these findings may not conflict with Altemeyer at all. I don't think they do, actually. In fact, they would point to a crucial new variable in the equation: processsing (into personal belief) of communications/messaging/propaganda. Make sense?

by Sun Tzu 2006-01-30 02:53AM | 0 recs
Yes, It Does Make Sense...

RWAs are more likely to fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, for one thing. In fact, Altemeyer lists a suite of tendencies toward unreliable thinking. Compared to people in general, RWA's are more likely to:

  • Make many incorrect inferences from evidence.
  • Hold contradictory ideas leading them to `speak out of both sides of their mouths.'
  • Uncritically accept that many problems are `our most serious problem.'
  • Uncritically accept insufficient evidence that supports their beliefs.
  • Uncritically trust people who tell them what they want to hear.
  • Use many double standards in their thinking and judgements.
So, while my immediate response was to note the discrepancy wrt levels of fearfulness (since fearfulness is a broad correlate of RWA, in addition to the "most serious problem" syndrome), you are pointing to the "uncritically trust" factor, as well as other pieces of the RWA package.

I think it's very plausible.  I just wish we had polling data on these same questions for the week after 9/11.  I wonder how these same folks felt back then.  I have a hunch that they were much more hysterically fearful back then, and that different aspects of their psychology were drawn out over time.  But we will never know.

I really like that you've got a block of questions like this to create a scale.  Five questions is not a lot from a political psychology perspective, but there's good evidence, dating at least back to Free & Cantril's The Political Beliefs of Americans, that scales based on five questions can produce incredibly valuable insights that stand up well in the light of subsequent research.  This is very good stuff.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-01-30 03:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Yes, It Does Make Sense...
Your explanation of Altemeyer, etc. is extremely helpful, interesting, fascinating. I appreciate it. I'm not really familiar with his specific work. I will be, though.

What a great discussion and info. Thanks mucho and for the scale rubs, too. I'm a real believer in setting up scales like that as much as possible. You almost always get killer insight into what's happening.

by Sun Tzu 2006-01-30 11:22AM | 0 recs
Altemeyer's Books

Most of Altemeyer's findings are summarized in three books.  The last of them is the most comprehensive, and is a good place to start.  It's called The Authoritarian Specter.  You can then go back and look at specific things that interest you in the first two.

Added bonus: Altemeyer has a sense of humor.  The intro is a real hoot, but there's a nice sprinkling of dry humor throughout the rest of the book, along with sometimes dorky humor as well.

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-01-30 07:27PM | 0 recs
Please Suggest References
I'm curious to understand more about the concept of Statistically Significant, wrt the deviation from national means when you look at cross-tabs. Do you have some references? I can handle the math, but I want something more applied and specific to polling and how to handle cross-tabs, not just stats-theory.
by MetaData 2006-02-13 03:54PM | 0 recs


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