WASHINGTON -- Most Americans have been following the protests roiling Egypt, but the majority are unsure whether the Egyptian crisis bodes well or ill for the United States. Those are the most obvious conclusions from two recently released surveys of Americans by Gallup and the Pew Research Center.
Both surveys show higher than average attention being paid to the Egypt story. The Gallup poll, conducted February 2-5 among 1,015 adults, finds more than two thirds of respondents say they have followed news about the political crisis and demonstrations in Egypt very (27%) or somewhat closely (42%). The Pew Research survey, conducted February 2-7 among 1,385 adults, finds that nearly half (48%) say they have heard a lot about "recent anti-government protests in Egypt," while the rest report hearing a little (38%) or nothing at all (13%).
The reported awareness found by the Pew Research survey (48% paying a lot of attention) is far greater than what they measured for ethnic violence in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2007 (22%), the recent debates in Washington about how to address the federal budget deficit (31%) or extending the Bush tax cuts (38%), but slightly less than awareness of the Tea Party movement at the conclusion of the 2010 campaign (54%).
Reported familiarity with the Egypt story is also consistent with another Pew Research Center finding released today. Their Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that last week, the turmoil in Egypt filled 56% of the "newshole" (news coverage on television, radio, newspapers and online), making it "the biggest international story in the past four years."
The surveys appear to diverge dramatically, however, on the question of what the protests mean for the United States. The Gallup survey finds more than twice as many Americans (60%) say "the political changes that are occurring (in Egypt) will be mostly good" as say it will be bad (26%), while just 14% are unsure.
The Pew Research survey finds the opposite pattern: Only 15% say "the anti-government protests and calls for political change in Egypt will end up being good for the United States," while nearly twice as many (28%) say it will end up being "bad," and a majority say either that it "won't have much effect" (36%) or are unsure or unable to answer (22%).
The most obvious difference between the questions is that the Pew Research survey offers an explicit middle category -- "won't have much effect" -- while the Gallup question offers only "mostly good" and "mostly bad" as choices. One interpretation of the difference is that for many Americans, "no effect" amounts to good news: The absence of a backlash that might have a negative impact on the U.S.
That theory is supported by the fact that both surveys find roughly the same number (26%/28%) who say the protests will be bad. That similarity also extends across partisan subgroups, as illustrated by the chart below. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to see bad news in the Egyptian protests, with independents falling in between, but the two surveys find results within 3 percentage points of each other within each subgroup. While the gap on the "good news" side of the chart is obviously huge, it remains roughly constant across partisan subgroups.
At the very least, this pattern suggests that the opinions on the "bad news" side of the issue are better developed and less susceptible to influence by the words and format of the questions the pollsters use.
Another potential explanation for the difference involves the context set by the preceding questions. Both surveys begin by probing awareness of the story, and each asks at least one substantive question before asking about whether the protests will be good for bad for the U.S. But the intermediate questions are very different: Gallup asks respondents if they are "sympathetic or unsympathetic to the protestors in Egypt who have called for a change in the government" (82% are very or somewhat sympathetic), then asks whether the crisis will be good or bad for Egypt (66% say mostly good). Pew Research asks whether the Obama administration is offering too much support for the protesters (12%), too little support (12%), or is handling the situation about right (57%) -- 20% were unsure.
Some will argue in asking about sympathy for the protesters, Gallup may have effectively primed some respondents to offer a positive answer on the next question. It may be easier for the respondent to say the protests are "good news" if they have just offered sympathy for the protesters.
Whatever the explanation, the wide divergence in results -- and the huge numbers choosing the middle options on the Pew Research questions -- indicates that many Americans are simply unsure what the Egyptian protests will mean for them. When small, seemingly trivial differences in question wording produce huge differences across surveys, it usually suggests that respondents have not yet formed real opinions to the question posed.
Pundits from Matt Drudge to Nate Silver have been speculating about whether the Egyptian story is dragging down the approval ratings of President Obama. The polling jury remains out on that question -- Gallup's daily tracking poll is down a few points, and the Rasmussen Reports' numbers are essentially unchanged -- but the findings specific to Egypt tell us that this story is one that Americans are still struggling to understand.
It is hard to expect the Egyptian crisis to have a significant impact on Obama's ratings if attitudes on the actual crisis remain relatively soft. If the Egyptian story has had an impact on Obama's ratings, at least for now, it's most likely because it has changed the subject of news coverage.