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Americans Aren’t That Interested In Benghazi

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton will testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. There will be the usual frenzy of coverage, with battling news conferences and angry denunciations flying between Democrats and Republicans.

And, for the most part, Americans don’t care.

The public’s interest in the September 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the subsequent investigations into Clinton’s responsibility for the death of two U.S. diplomats while she was secretary of state, has dropped considerably since the events.

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Five investigations by standing House committees haven’t been enough to recapture the country’s interest.

By May 2013, Gallup found that 53 percent of Americans were following the Benghazi story “somewhat or very” closely. That bare majority represents a lower level of engagement than Americans usually have with the news. Gallup says its surveys on current events typically find that about 60 percent of Americans are paying attention to the major stories Gallup asks them about.

A little more than a year later, in June 2014, Gallup’s survey revealed that Americans’ interest had dropped even further. Only 43 percent of Americans said they followed Benghazi “somewhat or very” closely. That places Benghazi in the bottom 20 percent of all news stories Gallup has measured since 1991 (189th out of 224 news events).

Although most Americans have been following the story only tangentially, what they’ve heard has tended to leave them slightly frustrated with everyone involved. A late May 2014 poll by CNN found that 55 percent are unsatisfied with how Clinton has handled Benghazi. Meanwhile, 44 percent felt that congressional Republicans had gone too far in their investigations. For both questions, responses varied enormously by party affiliation. Twenty-two percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents were dissatisfied with Clinton, and 70 percent of Democrats, 14 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of independents felt Congress’s response had run amok.

It’s hard to figure out exactly how much impact these frustrations have had on Clinton’s poll numbers. She has slumped slightly since entering the race, but that wasn’t a surprise. Transitioning from an above-the-fray secretary of state to an active candidate is expected to soften poll numbers. She has faced a reinforcing loop of bad press, but most of those stories were about her email scandal, which was sparked by Benghazi concerns but has become a story of its own. There just isn’t enough evidence that her role in Benghazi is one of her biggest problems.

And, although we don’t often cite Public Policy Polling surveys at FiveThirtyEight (their results are sometimes questionable because of their exclusion of cell phone users and reliance on automated robo-polls, as opposed to those with a live interviewer, among other methodology problems), they did take an entertaining approach to putting Benghazi in context. In a May 2013 robo-poll, PPP asked respondents to compare Benghazi to several historical scandals and found that, yes, Americans did consider it worse than the Teapot Dome scandal. Forty-five percent of Americans thought that Benghazi was worse than Teapot Dome, and only 30 percent said it was the other way around.

So, that’s good news for President Warren Harding and Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall, whose role in Teapot Dome made Fall the first Cabinet member to be convicted of a crime and sent to prison, back in 1929. He can rest in peace, shielded by America’s political amnesia.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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