How Americans Think About Nuclear Weapons – What You Need to Know to Communicate Successfully

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  A  message  on  “reshaping”  for  21st  century  and moving  away  from “outdated  nuclear  weapons” was  convincing  to 64%  of  respondents and very convincing  to  35%.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

ReThink Media is a non-profit organization that is focused on providing communications strategies & training, state-of-art media tools, support and public opinion data to individuals and organizations dedicated to the cause of world peace. You can learn more about them here. 

NuclearWeapons_PollTakeAways_ReThinkOpinion_Oct2012 (1).pdf NuclearWeapons_PollTakeAways_ReThinkOpinion_Oct2012 (1).pdf

Leave a Reply