9/11 and Military Tribunals

Today’s Washington Post report that the Obama administration may pivot to a military trial for Khalid Sheik Mohammad comports with a move in public opinion in the same direction.

Interestingly, it’s a change that’s mainly occurred far from the president’s political base.

Our ABC/Post poll last month found Americans favoring military tribunals rather than civilian court trials for 9/11 suspects by 55-39 percent. That’d widened from essentially an even split, 48-47 percent, when we asked the same question last fall.

The Post talks about potential “anger from the left” if the administration shifts on this issue, and it’s true that liberals prefer civilian court trials by 58-36 percent (liberal Democrats, by 62-31). But liberals account for just a quarter of the population. Conservatives, beyond being more numerous, go more broadly the other way – 75-22 for military trials. And moderates tilt slightly toward tribunals, 50-43 percent.

In terms of partisanship rather than ideology, most Democrats, but only a slim majority, prefer civilian court trials, 52 percent. Fifty-six percent of independents, by contrast, prefer military tribunals – as do 71 percent of Republicans.

Both ideology and partisanship, then, present similar conclusions: In addition to the center being more inclined toward military tribunals, conservatives and Republicans favor this approach far more broadly than liberals and Democrats prefer civilian trials.

It’s also worth noting where the changes in public preferences have occurred since last fall: There’s been very little movement among liberals and moderates, Democrats and independents. Instead it’s chiefly conservatives and Republicans who’ve changed their stance, shifting toward tribunals by 18- and 13-point margins, respectively.

This shift is reflected in another result, the differential in concern raised by the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest airlines jet over Detroit. In a poll we did in January, shortly after that incident, conservatives and Republicans were notably less likely than other Americans to give a positive rating to U.S. efforts in preventing terrorist attacks.

That poll also found a broad sense across political and ideological groups that the Obama administration might not go far enough in investigating terrorism out of concern about protecting constitutional rights; the public overall said so by 63-27 percent. If there's a political calculation in the move to a military tribunal, that kind of data may inform it.

ABC/Post polls: Prefer military tribunals for 9/11 trials Feb. Nov. Change All 55% 48 +7

Lib 36 31 +5 Mod 50 47 +3 Cons 75 57 +18

Dems 39 34 +5 Inds 56 53 +3 Reps 71 58 +13

Lib Dems 31 33 -2 Cons Reps 76 60 +16

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