Americans Want The Next President To Rein In Government Surveillance

06/05/2015 04:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) speech against the National Security Agency's collection of Americans' phone data may not have earned him many points among his fellow Republicans, but it put him in agreement with much of the American public.

In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 40 percent said they'd prefer a presidential candidate who wants to place more limits on government surveillance, while just 16 percent said they'd rather have a candidate who didn't support such limits. The remaining 43 percent were undecided, or said it didn't matter.

The issue is unlikely to serve as a key factor in anyone's vote next year -- most people are far more focused on the economy and jobs. But about two-thirds said they're somewhat or very concerned about government surveillance of Americans' data and electronic communications.

That concern isn't limited to one party, either among politicians or the public. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said earlier this week that he shares Paul's concerns; nationally, 60 percent or more in both parties said in the poll that they consider themselves at least somewhat worried about government surveillance. Democrats said by a 23-point margin that they'd prefer an anti-surveillance candidate, and Republicans agreed, although by a smaller 14-point margin.

Opinions of the Patriot Act itself aren't especially negative. Several provisions of the act, including those that allowed the NSA to collect and analyze information on Americans' phone calls in order to locate suspected terrorists, expired at the beginning of the month. They were quickly replaced by a modified bill known as the USA Freedom Act. Americans in the poll were divided on the law. Members of both parties were slightly in favor of renewing the provisions, but independents were strongly against doing so. Overall, 37 percent of Americans wanted the provisions to be renewed, while 39 percent did not, and another 24 percent were unsure.

Subjects like government surveillance, which don't affect the day-to-day lives of most Americans, tend to be especially sensitive to how questions are worded and the context into which they're placed. A Pew/GfK poll last November, for instance, found significantly lower levels of public concern about government surveillance. The poll asked a nearly identical question to the HuffPost/YouGov poll, but prefaced it with a series of questions that included one about the acceptability of monitoring "communications from individuals suspected of terrorist activities."

A 2007 paper on opinions of the Patriot Act found that support for the legislation varied from as low as 33 percent to as high as 69 percent, depending on the wording used to describe it.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll suggests, however, that Americans are sympathetic to the idea that the government's surveillance strategy is overly broad.

Asked how current American policy fares in balancing national security and individual privacy, nearly 38 percent said security was overemphasized, while just 15 percent said too much importance was placed on privacy. Twenty-three percent thought the balance was about right.

Meanwhile, the public's opinion of Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked information about government surveillance, has improved markedly over the past year. By a 7-point margin, Americans said Snowden did the right thing -- in 2014, they said by a 2-point margin that he was in the wrong.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted June 1-3 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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