The Fix's Aaron Blake looks at how President Trump's threats to North Korea contrast with the milder tone of his Cabinet secretaries. (Jenny Starrs,Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played down the possibility of U.S. military intervention with North Korea on Wednesday after days of escalating threats between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. That back-and-forth mirrors the American public’s mixed support for military action to thwart the Asian nation’s growing military capability.

Polls released this week showcase the tenuous public support for military involvement. A CNN poll released Monday found 50 percent support taking military action in response to North Korea’s development and testing of weapons that could reach the U.S. mainland.

But a CBS News poll conducted by the same survey firm over the same period found just 29 percent saying the North Korean threat requires military action now, while twice as many said the threat can be contained (60 percent).


Two other surveys earlier this summer by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Fox News found support ranging from 40 to 51 percent among adults and registered voters, respectively.

By itself, the inconsistent support for military action suggests Americans are reluctant about the idea. A July Washington Post-ABC News poll illustrated one likely reason: 74 percent said they were concerned about the possibility of getting involved in a full-scale war with North Korea.

It’s also notable that the range in support for military action across polls is smaller among Democrats (between 22 and 35 percent) than among Republicans (between 48 and 74 percent), an indication their support is more malleable.

But the range in support also corresponds with different question wording and contexts in each poll. No survey question wording or context is perfect, and all represent each research team’s attempt to put the question in the most relevant context. But beyond helping explain why they found differing results, the varying framings help explain what may drive support for military action today and in coming debates.

Take the Fox News survey, which found the greatest support for intervention, with 51 percent supporting and 37 percent opposing military action to stop North Korea from continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program. This straightforward question came immediately after a related question asking whether North Korea could be stopped “through diplomacy alone,” or whether military force would be necessary, with voters saying the latter by nearly 2 to 1. The initial question may have reminded respondents of the ineffectiveness of diplomacy to deter North Korea’s nuclear program over many years. Respondents who agreed military action would be necessary likely found it difficult to oppose military action when offered the option.


Fox News poll July 16-18.

The CNN poll, which found 50 percent backing military action, asked whether North Korea “is capable of launching a missile that would be able to hit the United States, including Hawaii,” to which 77 percent of adults said yes. The following question framed the purpose of potential military action as a “response to its development and testing of weapons that could reach the U.S. mainland.” It’s certainly accurate that North Korea is trying to develop weapons that can hit the U.S. mainland, and the large majority who said the country is currently capable of this suggests it may be a potent consideration.


CNN poll Aug. 3-6

Contrast the Fox and CNN results with the Chicago Council poll finding 40 percent in support of military action. The survey asked about support as part of a series of “actions to pressure North Korea to stop building its nuclear weapons program.” It first asked about support for allowing the country to possess nuclear weapons, which was opposed by more than 7 in 10 respondents. It next asked about support for tighter sanctions on the country, which 76 percent supported, and then asked about support for conducting airstrikes targeting North Korea’s nuclear production facilities. The survey did not prime specific concerns about diplomacy’s effectiveness or North Korea’s ability to attack the United States, although it’s possible respondents were less supportive of military action when it was offered alongside the option of sanctions.


Chicago Council poll June 27-July 19

The CBS News poll finding the least support for military action, 29 percent, differed in several ways from other questions. Respondents were asked to choose one of three options regarding North Korea’s development of weapons:

  1. North Korea is a threat requiring military action now.
  2. North Korea is a threat that can be contained right now.
  3. North Korea is not a threat.

The first option’s pointed phrasing of “military action now” may have diminished support among Americans who think military action may eventually be necessary, as highlighted in the Fox poll. But 60 percent of CBS poll respondents selected the second option’s vague suggestion maintaining diplomatic efforts for the time being, while just 7 percent said North Korea was not a threat.


CBS News poll Aug. 3-6

To read a little more into these polls based on their question ordering: The CBS and Chicago Council polls clearly suggest a preference for maintaining diplomatic efforts over military intervention at this point. But the CNN poll indicates that the week’s revelations that North Korea has developed miniature nuclear warheads that could be delivered by its intercontinental ballistic missiles may boost support for military action. And the Fox survey points to Americans’ skepticism that diplomacy will be effective in getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, an argument the Trump administration would likely make in justifying military action.

Trump’s popularity is also a key consideration as it will color reactions to any future military engagement with North Korea. The CBS poll released this week found a 61 percent majority who said they were “uneasy” with Trump’s ability to handle the situation, similar to the 63 percent who trusted Trump “just some” or “not at all” in the Post-ABC poll last month. Other polls find more people approve of Trump’s handling of North Korea, although he is underwater on this front, with between 37 and 41 percent giving him positive marks.

Poll methodology details:

CNN: August 3-6 by cellular and landline phone among 1,018 adults; 3.6-point margin of sampling error.

Fox News: July 16-18 by cellular and landline phone among 1,020 registered voters; 3-point margin of sampling error.

Chicago Council: Conducted June 27-July 19 online among 2,020 adults using GfK’s probability-sampled online panel; 2.4-point margin of sampling error.

CBS News: Conducted Aug. 3-6 by cellular and landline phone among 1,111 adults; 4-point margin of sampling error.