Pew poll: 56% support NSA tracking phone calls to hunt for terrorists, near-majority support tracking e-mails

I tweeted the link to this WaPo story and was surprised by how many people seemed surprised by, or even in outright denial about, the results. This has always been a 50/50 issue, more or less; if it wasn’t, The One wouldn’t have dared to trade his Hopenchange cred for PRISM. The only numbers that really move much in the data from year to year aren’t the topline results but the partisan splits, which predictably shift — a lot, as you’ll see below — depending upon which party is at the controls of NSA.


A caveat: In 2006 the question referred to the feds listening in on calls “without court approval” while in 2013 it mentioned that calls were tracked via “secret court orders.” Court oversight may account for the five-point overall bump in favor, or maybe the more ambiguous phrasing about tracking calls versus listening to them accounts for it. Either way, gaze upon those partisan swings — more than 20 points each for the GOP, a majority of whom at least remain consistent in supporting the program regardless of the president’s party, and for the fraudulent Democrats, who’ve gone from -24 net disapproval under Bush to +30(!) under Obama. That’s over 60 percent against to 60 percent in favor in seven years. Amazing, but not surprising.

I don’t think those numbers will revert fully to 2006 levels if a Republican takes the White House in three years, but they’ll revert to a substantial degree. Figure maybe 65 or 70 percent support among GOPers and 40 or 45 percent support among Dems. It’s a simple question of whether you trust the current commander-in-chief to exercise his surveillance powers responsibly, and that question is answered by partisan affiliation. It shouldn’t work that way — Obama built on Bush’s precedents and the next president will build on Obama’s — but it’s a fact of political life. The same holds true when you adapt this question to ask whether the feds should have power to “monitor” e-mails in the name of preventing terror attacks. Seven years ago, 53 percent of Republicans said yes versus just 41 percent of Democrats. Today, just 45 percent of Republicans agree but 53 percent of Democrats do. The topline number, 45 percent support overall, remained constant but only because a critical 10-15 percent or so on each side flipped and offset each other.

Also interesting is that support for data-mining of phone records and monitoring of e-mails doesn’t vary dramatically among age groups according to Pew, which makes this poll unusual given that young adults tend to be more liberal on most issues. When asked whether the government should prioritize counterterrorism or privacy, 51 percent of the 18-29 group say the former versus just 45 percent who say the latter. (That was the closest margin among the four age groups.) When asked specifically about tracking phone records, young adults are right in line with other age groups at 55 percent support. When asked about e-mails, they’re at 46 percent support — higher than the 30-49 group or the 50-64 group. If you’re expecting the surveillance state to relax as millennials take power, think again.

Like I say, I’m surprised anyone is surprised. What’s truly noteworthy about this poll, I think, is how many people felt comfortable telling a pollster that they support surveillance of phone records and e-mails. I figured every poll on this subject would be more in line with Rasmussen’s result this morning, in which 59 percent of likely voters said they oppose government collecting phone records. That’s the answer many people will sense they’re “supposed” to give when a stranger’s pressing them on their tolerance of governmental invasions of privacy. And yet here’s Pew finding 56 percent willing to tell them okay on phone records and 45 percent on e-mails. If that’s what people are willing to say out loud, how much more are they secretly willing to accept? And even if, somehow, those numbers accurately reflect opinion, how likely is it that significant policy changes will happen on a 50/50-ish issue? Not much to be happy about here if you’re a civil libertarian.