By ReThink Media
The public has conflicted opinions about nuclear weapons. They don’t like them, but they see them as necessary and essential. They like the idea of eliminating them, but don’t see that as realistic. The challenge is to build public confidence in a process of reductions.
- Lake Research found 77% of respondents describe nuclear weapons as “necessary” and 79% as “essential.”
- At the same time, the next four top descriptions were “too expensive” – 65%; “too many” – 52%, “mismatched to today’s threats” – 50%: and “Cold War weapons” – 46%.
- Quinnipiac found that 70% favor the elimination of nuclear weapons, but 87% don’t think that is realistic. Similarly, CNN found that 75% believe the elimination of nuclear weapons is impossible.
- Bottom Line: Characterizing nuclear weapons as “useless,” or words to that effect, will alienate you from your audience. Leading with a message of elimination will likely do the same. We recommend an approach that meets audiences where they’re at and aims to increase their comfort with step-by-step reductions.
The public is strongly in favor of “reshaping” America’s military to address 21st century realities. “Cuts” imply weakness and reduced security. An implied reduction in security is a loser since the debate occurs within a frame of what approach will make you safer.
- Lake Research found large majorities, 89%, 81%, 88% in favor of language advocating re-shaping, refocusing or reorganizing America’s military, but “re-shaping” polls best.
- Research into word association shows that “re--shaping” implies agency, control and strategic decision-making. “Cutting” or “reducing” invoke weakness.
- By a 28-point margin (59% > 31%), men agree, “Our military needs to adapt to 21st century threats and spend less on nuclear weapons systems.” Women agree by an even stronger 38 points (65% > 27%).
- Research by the Program for Public Consultation reinforces the same theme. A message on “reshaping” for 21st century and moving away from “outdated nuclear weapons” was convincing to 64% of respondents and very convincing to 35%.
- Bottom Line: Build on the strong public support for reshaping our military to address 21st century security needs. Do not base your argument on “cutting” our nuclear arsenal.
Draw a contrast between spending on nuclear weapons and spending on America’s troops.
- The #1 top performing message in the Lake Research made this direct linkage: “For the cost of just one new nuclear submarine, we could provide body armor and bomb-resistant Humvees to all our troops overseas, house and treat every homeless US veteran, and still have $2.2 billion leftover to pay down our debt. Our troops and security should come before pork-barrel nuclear programs.” 70% of respondents found this convincing, with a very high 45% finding this message very convincing.
- An enormous 97% of Independents, 96% of Republicans and 87% of Democrats feel it is personally important to protect troops from cuts. That emotional response is critical to strong opinions.
- Bottom Line: People understand that there are choices to be made, and spending reductions are forthcoming, but they don’t want to harm the troops. This provides an opportunity to suggest cuts that would explicitly not impact the troops and could proactively benefit them.
Talk About the “Big Number”
Talk about the“Big Number.” The enormous cost of nuclear weapons is a persuasive opening across party lines. Many think we spend too much on nuclear weapons before they hear any facts on the topic. After they do, those numbers jump up by double-digit margins among all voters.
- Before the dollar amount is mentioned 48% of Democrats, 35% of Independents and 21% of Republicans think we spend “too much” on nukes, according to Lake Research.
- After hearing how much is spent there is an 11% increase in Democrats thinking it’s “too much” (48%>59%), a 12% increase in Independent’s thinking that (35%>47%) and the number of Republicans holding that view doubles. (21%>42%).
- The Program for Public Consultation reached the same conclusion. Presented with the details of nuclear weapons costs, 64% of Republicans, 57% of Independents and 78% of Democrats favored cutting nuclear weapons budgets.
- Bottom Line: Always find a way to work in information about the overall cost of nuclear weapons.
Arguing for cuts in nuclear weapons spending in order to reduce the deficit goes nowhere. But re-shaping our military in order to strengthen our military competitiveness is powerful.
- By double-digit margins, Lake Research found that Americans reject the idea of reducing nuclear weapons if the purpose is to reduce the deficit. 56% oppose reductions if that is the aim, while only 37% support that. Men and women hold this view by nearly identical margins.
- In sharp contrast, voters agree by a 20-point margin (57% to 37%) that, “to be strong as a nation and competitive in the global economy, we need to invest less in our military and more in education and jobs.” Invoking competitiveness and programs that strengthen our position is persuasive.
- G.Q.R. focus groups also indicate stronger support for cutting Pentagon spending is the aim is increasing America’s economic competitiveness. – The Program for Public Consultation similarly found that 63% found it convincing that high Pentagon spending means that “other parts of the economy are short--changed, diverting talent and resources from other goals and weakening America’s economic competitiveness-–which hurts our security in the long run. We need to re-balance our priorities and rein in defense spending.”
- BOTTOM LINE: Don’t argue that reductions in nuclear spending are necessary to reduce the deficit, argue that they’re necessary to strengthen our economy and economic competitiveness.
People may believe nuclear weapons are essential for deterrence, but they don’t necessarily think we need the arsenal that we have. Instead of making an argument about how many weapons we can eliminate and “still be safe,” make an argument about how many weapons we need to be secure and position the remainder as wasteful and redundant.
- As noted, 84% of Americans view nuclear weapons as “essential” and 76% see them as “necessary.”
- 90% view nuclear weapons as “important” to “deter attack against the US and our allies.”
- However, by a 38--point margin (67% to 29%) Americans believe a smaller deterrent would be perfectly adequate and find the following statement convincing “The idea that we need thousands of weapons to deter an adversary is absurd. We can effectively destroy a country with a small number of weapons.”
- BOTTOM LINE: Make a “bottom--up” argument that positions most of the arsenal as redundant, wasteful and contributing little to our security. Don’t make an argument about how”low we can go.”
Beware of the Numbers!
Beware the numbers! Providing details about the number of weapons in the world or the number of countries that have them weakens support for reductions. If you do cite the numbers, do so in a way that reinforces the perception of security. Voters are split on the overall subject of reducing arsenals (46% oppose, 44% support). Men oppose reductions (50% to 41%) but women support them (46% to 42%).
- When it comes to Russia though, all voters strongly favor mutual and verifiable reductions (45% to 24%). This is also a bipartisan winner with Republicans favoring negotiated reductions with Russia (40% to 34%) and Democrats favoring them strongly (52% to 14%).
- Additional information about other countries’ nuclear arsenals, however, leads to an evaporation of support.
- Posed with the following question: “Currently the US and Russia each have 5000 long range nuclear bombs, while China, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea combined have less than 1000 long range nuclear bombs. Do you favor or oppose reducing the number of nuclear weapons the US has?” men oppose further cuts (48% to 47%) and women sharply increase their opposition (53% to 42%).
- This pattern repeats when the number of weapons is included. Voters oppose cutting the warheads the U.S. has from 1800 to 500 by strong margins (Men: 49% to 32%; Women: 40% to 24%).
- People are strongly conditioned to fear unilateral reductions. Always mention verification and mention mutual reductions whenever possible.
- BOTTOM LINE: Stick to the broad assertive messaging for why reductions are desirable. If you do invoke numbers, do so in a manner that reinforces the perception of security. For example: “The US has 36 times as many nuclear weapons as China. We can afford to eliminate the ones we don’t need.”
A narrative that sticks has both “good guys” and “bad guys.” Congress and lobbyists are almost universally seen as impediments to practical change. Messages that invoke Congress and special interests as obstacles resonate more effectively.
- The #2 top--performing message in the Lake Research, with a 65% “convincing rate” was: “Our military budget today is determined by politicians, lobbyists and special interests, not safety. Lobbyists working for military contractors, their CEOs, and boards of directors, lobby Members of Congress and make big political contributions. Then they are awarded contracts. Decisions should be made based on what’s best for our military, not politics and profits for special interests.”
- Research by the Program for Public Consultation Defense shows the same pattern. The message “contractors persuade lawmakers to approve weapons that aren’t needed by giving them large campaign contributions and other personal benefits. Clearly there is room to reduce the national defense budget without affecting US security” was convincing or very convincing to an overwhelming 81%.
- Bottom Line: Policies don’t just happen. Assign responsibility to congress and special interests when explaining why we maintain a redundant and expensive nuclear arsenal. Voters are poised to agree.
Putting This Message Research into Practice…
We want to avoid headlines, like this recent one from The New York Times: “Cuts Would Not Effect Security.” This framing is doubly problematic. By arguing for cuts, in audiences’ minds we are de facto arguing in favor of weakening our security. By arguing that cuts won’t affect security- we are inherently accepting the premise that they will.
We want to meet voters where they’re at, make a connection and build support for our policies such as in this pending op-ed addressing Pentagon spending overall:
“Frankly, many of our long--term needs are self--evident. First, we need to reshape our national security budget to prepare for 21st century priorities. Second, we need to honor our commitments to the American troops that have fought for a decade and are now coming home. And third, we need to invest in the programs that strengthen our economy and maximize our economic competitiveness and this means investing in education and jobs, particularly in the technology sectors. Nonstrategic government spending that prevents us from achieving these long--term goals is simply unacceptable. We spend entirely too much money on weapons that do little to keep us safe and that are driven more by lobbying dollars than 21st century needs. For example, we are slated to spend between $600 and $700 billion on redundant nuclear weapons over the next ten years – money we could be putting into other priorities.” Φ
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