Hearings won’t change many minds

The political naïveté of the current administration was on full display Sunday when a deputy national security adviser was dispatched to quell fears about American public opinion that will bubble up because of the Pete King terrorism hearings. The above-the-fold headline on page 1 of Monday’s New York Times said, “White House Seeks to Allay Fears of Muslims on Terror Hearings.” But was the White House really seeking to mollify Muslims? I think the intent here might have been to reassure non-Muslims that “We have things under control; there’s no reason to fear Muslims or their response to a little congressional troublemaking.”

Neither political objective is possible. Obama and Congress cannot exert any significant influence on the attitudes of Muslims or non-Muslims through an “earned-media” initiative. The task is simply too great and the process too flawed. It’s akin to trying to change the pH level of the ocean with a squirt-gun full of vinegar. Non-Muslims already possess fairly robust opinions about Islam and its relationship to terrorism. Muslims have already made up their minds, too. So why would either side be interested in what the president or Congress has to say? Polling suggests that neither is likely to be much more influential than Muslims themselves.


According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted in January, 47 percent of Americans hold unfavorable opinions of the Democrats, and 49 percent of the Republicans. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted in February, 69 percent of Americans disapprove of the job performance of Congress. In the same poll, 46 disapproved of President Obama’s performance in the White House. Meanwhile, just 43 percent of Americans polled by Gallup last year will admit to being prejudiced toward Muslims. So the Washington insider political scenario is that their vehicle, already in the ditch and upside down, is going to be the wrecker that pulls the Muslim car in the same ditch back onto the road. 

A quick review of extant polling on American attitudes toward issues at stake in the King hearings suggests that the political and media establishment hasn’t often gotten its hands capably around the matter. Only the CBS and Newsweek polls came close to the target in the past 12 months. In a nationwide poll completed last April, CBS asked: “Which do you think is the more serious threat to Americans: International terrorism committed by citizens from other countries, or domestic terrorism committed by American citizens?” Forty-six percent said international and 38 percent chose domestic. The problem with the question is that the domestic terrorism option is tied to mayhem committed by “American citizens.” I suspect that reduced the domestic percentage. Fear might be greater of non-citizens here legally on student or work visas. But even if I added 10 points to the 38 percent with fears of domestic terrorism, the negative would still not exceed that possessed by Congress itself. I’m thinking they should have asked, “What is a greater threat to you and your American family today: Domestic terrorism or congressional meddling in politics?”

A Newsweek poll conducted last August by Princeton Survey Research Associates International comes closest to being relevant for the hearings. It found that only 17 percent of Americans believe that most or many Muslims in the United States support the use of violence by Muslims against non-Muslims. Twenty percent say the same about domestic Muslim support for al Qaeda.

I’m not surprised that a recent poll for the Religious News Service found that “nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans haven’t heard anything about the upcoming hearings to investigate U.S. Muslim extremism.” In the same poll, most welcomed the hearings, but I suspect that a forum besides Congress watched over by the White House would bear more benefit to us all.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.