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War News Radio

Jan 2014

Who Supports Drone Strikes?

January 13, 2014

We asked students at historically peacenik Swarthmore College what they think of drone strikes. It turns out there's more to the story than just political party. Full transcript below.

HOST: Over the past few years, War News Radio has done quite a bit of reporting about drone strikes. Usually, we call up activists, academics, and policymakers to discuss the effects of this largely secretive program targeting militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and beyond. We started to wonder - what do students like us think about drone strikes? Do they support them? Do they even know much about them? Joining me today to discuss War News Radio’s survey of students here at Swarthmore College is reporter Amy DiPierro.

So Amy, what exactly did you ask people, and what did you expect them to answer?

AMY: I’ll admit that we came in with a particular narrative in mind. Like many foreign policy issues, we didn’t think opinions on drone strikes split cleanly along party lines.

On one hand, drone strikes have grown exponentially under President Obama, but the administration has also been extremely reluctant to even talk about it. The Republican party is also pretty divided. The party’s libertarian wing says strikes abroad threaten rights here at home but other Republicans have expressed qualified support.


HOST: So, in order, we just heard from two democrats - President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry - and two Republicans - Senator Rand Paul and Senator John McCain.

AMY: Right. And keeping remarks like theirs in mind, our hypothesis was this: with the exception of civil libertarians like Rand Paul, Swarthmore’s Republicans would be more likely than the College’s Democrats to support drone strikes.

HOST: Maybe we should back up by saying that Swarthmore students aren’t exactly representative of the rest of the country.

AMY: Yeah. It’s fair to say that Swarthmore is pretty skewed to start. We’re regarded by some as one of the most liberal Liberal Arts colleges in the U.S. And besides that, students here have a proud history of anti-war activism specifically. The school was founded in the 1860s by Quakers - pacifists by definition - and since then, Swarthmore has been home to conscientious objectors from the military, a special library devoted to peace movements, and a database of nonviolent actions all over the world.

So when we ran this study, we weren’t really sure if Swarthmore’s peaceful, Quaker roots would rule the day.

HOST: So true to the College’s Quaker past, were Swarthmore students against drone strikes?

AMY: Well, you’re missing an important snag in our plan here. I mentioned that Swarthmore students are pretty liberal - this isn’t the University of Virginia - so we weren’t expecting a lot of conservatives in our survey. But we underestimated that factor quite a bit.

Host: What do you mean you ‘underestimated’?

Amy: Let’s just say that after the first day of polling, only one person identified as a Republican.
So we asked some of our conservative friends to take the survey and we also posted the survey on the Swarthmore Conservatives Facebook page. In that sense, our poll isn’t exactly random, but seeking a larger conservative sample has helped us come to more significant conclusions.

Host: What did you find?

Amy: Our initial hypothesis was spot on. We found pretty conclusively that, on average, Republicans support drone strikes more than Democrats. Republicans were also more likely than Democrats to prize national securities over civil liberties. And sure enough, when you take out the libertarians in each party, those differences are even starker.

Host: Yeah, but as we said earlier, Swarthmore is just not a representative sample for the rest of the country. Does your survey really reflect what people think about drone strikes?

Amy: Good question. We’ve compared our results to some national surveys. For example, a Pew Research poll earlier this year finds that 69% of Republicans support drone strikes, compared to only 59% of Democrats. Basically, it looks like Swarthmore students follow the same pattern, but with even lower support overall: half of Republicans and under 20% of Democrats favored drone strikes. So yeah, it seems Swarthmore’s anti-war bias is alive and well.

Another surprising result was how few students actually considered themselves well informed about drone strikes in the first place. Comparing our results to a Gallup poll last winter, it looks like Swatties in both parties are less informed than the overall population - less than half of Republicans and about a third of Democrats rated their knowledge about drone strikes higher than five on a ten-point scale. For a campus that prides itself on being globally-aware, that’s not very encouraging.

One last thing, just ‘cause I don’t want to end on a downer. Just for the heck of it, we also asked respondents to rate their happiness before taking the poll, and it turns out the majority of respondents - the Democrats - are slightly happier than their Republican peers. So maybe that’s a confounding variable?

HOST: Amy, thanks for dropping by.

AMY: Thanks for having me.

HOST: The team working on the Swarthmore drones survey includes reporters Tyler Welsh and Patrick Han, as well as their statistically-minded friends, Chun Hei Wong and Thomas Kim. Zoe Cina-Sklar also contributed to this report.

If you want to see some of the preliminary results from the survey - histograms, confidence intervals, the works - you can check them out on our website. Stay tuned later this year to find out whether there’s a real difference between the two parties’ support for drones - or if the difference is just because Democrats are ever-so-slightly happier.

This is War News Radio.