Teaching Tuesday: Interpreting Gallup’s worrisome Israel poll, part 2

The occasional Teaching Tuesday posts focuses on education strategies and practices. The issue of Palestine, while of concern to a great and growing number of people, still has a long way to go before it is widely known and understood by the general public. This series tries to think through and produce tools and strategies for public education.

 In part 1, we took a close look at the worrisome top line results of a recent Gallup poll on Americans’ attitudes towards Palestine and Israel. Although the top-line were interpreted by most media outlets, Gallup included, as indicating record level support for Israel, looking mostly at question wording in this and other polls, I argued for a more nuanced interpretation of the results. Today we jump a bit deeper into the other questions asked in these polls as well as some of the demographic breakdowns to look at the possibilities for public education campaigns moving forward.

Education is possible. The headlines last week seemed to indicate growing support for Israel. Looking more closely at the numbers, however, there is good reason to believe that this support may be softer than the numbers appear.

We have several bits of data to suggest that the increased support for Israel is coming from low-information respondents. This is evidenced by the fact that the increased support from Israel in the Gallup poll is coming at the expense of the “don’t know / both / neither” category. In the last post, we speculated that this might partially reflect the increasing frequency with which declarations of support for Israel appeared in the 2012 political campaign season. In this case, it’s possible that those who didn’t care are now adopting what has become a necessary platitude for entry into American politics.

Another reason to think that these may be low information voters is that the increased support seems to be coming primarily from independent voters. Republican support for Israel held steady from last year at 78%, and is actually off 7 points from its 2010 high, while Democratic support ticked up 2 points from a year ago, though remains 2 points lower than in 2011 (we’re might just be looking at statistical noise here). Independents, by contrast, registered 63% sympathy for Israelis, an all-time high. Surveys have shown that independents are much more likely to be low-information voters on any number of issues, and it is probably the case here as well.

Taken together, this indicates to me that public opinion is probably far from set in stone and that a public education campaign can be particularly effective at the moment.

There is a significant generation gap on Palestine-Israel. Another bit of good news is that younger people are markedly less supportive of Israel than older folk, though majorities in all age categories do support Israel. Support for Israel drops off about 9 points with every age cohort in both the Gallup and the ABC/WaPo poll. This generational difference is only slightly off of the generational gaps on gay marriage was showing in the early 2000s, and we all know how quickly public opinion shifted there..

While there is a party gap, it is not growing. Both Gallup and ABC/WaPo show about a 20-point gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to sympathizing with Israel. Contrary to some of the signs that we saw in the last election, however, we have yet to see any evidence of this gap in the numbers. Once again, it seems like it is independents and low information voters who are up for grabs.

Conclusions. While still generally supportive of Israel, Americans’ opinions on the matter are far from determined. The more you dig into the numbers, the more you get a picture of frustration than anything else. When ABC/WaPo asked if the U.S. should take a leading roll in advancing a peace settlement or leave it to the parties, 69% of Americans respond the former.

Getting through this frustration will be difficult, but it is not impossible. The status quo benefits Israel and Israel advocates have been pursuing a strategy to take advantage of this frustration by encouraging people to see Palestine and Israel as “complicated,” i.e. too confusing for you (the under-informed) to oppose.

The message of Palestine solidarity needs to be simplified in order to cut through Americans’ frustrations. At this blog, we’ve been trying to do with Memes for Palestine. Visualizing Palestine also does so with great success. Now is the time to brainstorm and implement new, simple communication strategies so that we may achieve broader public action in the future. 

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