Poll: Americans feel unsafe, support action against ISIS

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province
Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014.

The percentage of Americans who believe the United States is less safe is at its highest point since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Forty-seven percent say the country is less safe, while just 26% say it’s safer. That’s compared with the results from Sept. 2002 (when just 20% said the country was less safe) and from last year (when it was 28%). And the poll finds that more than six in 10 respondents think that taking military action against the Islamic militant group ISIS is in the nation’s interest.

"A very war-weary country … seems to have woken up to the real threat that ISIS may present."'

These numbers serve as the backdrop for the prime-time speech President Obama will deliver on Wednesday night outlining his plan to combat ISIS, which has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria and which beheaded two American journalists in gruesome videos.

“A very war-weary country … seems to have woken up to the real threat that ISIS may present,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his colleagues at Hart Research.

“The beheadings are so chilling to the American public,” added Hart. “The only things I think of equal impact are the self-immolations back in Vietnam.”

Indeed, a whopping 94% of Americans say they have heard about the news of the beheaded journalists – higher than any other news event the NBC/WSJ poll has measured over the past five years.

That includes the 2011 debt-ceiling debate (77%), the 2012 health-care decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (78%), Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons in 2013 (79%) and this year’s botched execution in Oklahoma (68%).

Sixty-one percent say military action against ISIS is in nation’s interest

According to the poll, 61% of American voters believe that the United States taking military action against ISIS is in the United States’ interest, versus 13% who don’t. (Another 24% said they don’t know enough to have an opinion.) That’s a significant change when a similar question was asked last year about the U.S. taking possible action against Syria’s government after its reported use of chemical weapons. Back then, only 21% said action was in the nation’s interest, while 33% said it wasn’t.

“The results couldn’t be more different,” McInturff, the GOP pollster, says.

In addition, 40% of respondents say U.S. military action against ISIS should be limited only to air strikes; another 34% say it should include both air strikes and combat troops; and 15 percent say military action shouldn’t be taken.

And while a plurality of Americans (40%) think that the United States should be less active in world affairs, that’s a seven-point drop on this question from April (when it was 47%). By comparison, 27% say the U.S. should be more active – an eight-point increase from April.

Approval of Obama’s foreign policy sinks to all-time low

Obama’s speech Wednesday comes as the NBC/WSJ poll finds that just 32% of voters approve of his handling of foreign policy – an all-time low on this question.

And that appears to be hurting his party. The poll shows that Republicans have an 18-point advantage (41% to 23%) on which party best deals with foreign policy. That’s up from the GOP’s seven-point edge (33% to 26% a year ago).

Additionally, Republicans hold a 38-point lead (54% to 16%) on which party ensures a strong national defense – the GOP’s biggest advantage in more than 10 years on this question

Yet the NBC/WSJ pollsters say that Obama’s speech – followed by action against ISIS – could turn things around for the president and his party. “It might allow him to perhaps use September and October to be a more strongly perceived figure than he’s been,” McInturff says.

Demonstrating presidential leadership, he adds, could at a minimum strengthen could strengthen him among key Democratic groups that need to turn out for the party to have success in November.

Midterm advantage on GOP’s side

And for Democrats, an Obama turnaround needs to come sooner rather than later, because Republicans currently have the advantage heading into the midterm elections.

Two-thirds of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction – a higher percentage than at this point in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. Obama’s overall approval rating stands at 40%, tied for his all-time low in the poll. And Republicans hold a two-point advantage, 45% to 43%, on which party should control Congress.

That margin expands to 10 points – 50% to 40% – In the states holding this year’s most-competitive Senate contests.

“With 56 days until Election Day, our poll provides greater insight into what is likely to happen, and the news is not good for the Democrats,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Sept. 3-7 of 1,000 registered voters (including 350 cell phone-only respondents and another 32 reached on a cell phone but who also have a landline), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.