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New Poll Suggests Shift in Public Views on T.S.A. Procedures

The White House has begun to push back on the notion that there is a massive backlash against the T.S.A.’s new security procedures, citing a CBS News poll, released last week, which had shown 4 out of 5 Americans in favor of full-body screening machines, which the government refers to as “advanced imaging technology”.

A newer poll suggests, however, that the public scrutiny of the new screening procedures is significantly increasing.

The new survey, conducted for ABC News by Langer Associates, found 64 percent of Americans in favor of the full-body x-ray scanners, and 32 percent opposing them. That still reflects a clear majority; moreover, most of those who told ABC News that they support the x-ray scanners said they did so strongly.

It can sometimes be misleading to compare polls from different companies, particularly since they may word their questions somewhat differently. Nevertheless, the new survey implies that public opinion on the machines may be shifting quite rapidly. If one uses the CBS News poll as a baseline for comparison — in which 81 percent supported the use of the x-ray scanners — about 17 percent of Americans have gone from supporting the machines to opposing them in the span of a single week, during which time the use of the new techniques has been scrutinized by everyone from Captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger to the cast of Saturday Night Live.

Moreover, the ABC News poll finds that 50 percent of Americans think the T.S.A.’s “enhanced” pat-downs go too far — and 37 percent of Americans feel strongly so — versus 48 percent who say they are justified. It is important to clarify that, as the ABC News poll correctly identifies, the T.S.A. is in the process of implementing two separate and distinct security procedures: the new x-ray scanners on the one hand, and the more physically intrusive pat-downs on the other. Most of the incidents that have captured the public’s attention have to do with the latter procedure, the pat-downs, and that is where most of the public’s animus seems to be directed.

The ABC News poll also suggests that opposition to the measures is higher among those who fly regularly (a distinction that this blog had previously anticipated). Among Americans who fly at least once a year, 58 percent support the new x-ray scanners, versus 70 percent of Americans who fly less often than that. Support for the new pat-down procedures is at 44 percent among fliers, meanwhile, versus 52 percent among those who do not fly regularly.

In the past, even measures that have polled fairly well have nevertheless produced a material reduction in air travel. Indeed, the ABC News poll gets at this issue as well: 20 percent of respondents said that the new procedures would make them less likely to fly, versus 10 percent who said more so. Discouraging air travel could have a number of economic and safety consequences, principally because the primary substitute for air travel is automobile travel, which is considerably more dangerous over all.

Somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, the T.S.A. has been willing to dial back or reverse new security protocols in the past:

  • In 2007, the T.S.A. permitted bringing lighters on board the airplane, which it had banned previously.
  • The T.S.A’s 3-1-1 liquids rule is still on the books. However, many travelers believe that it is being enforced only sporadically.
  • In 2002, the T.S.A. stopped asking passengers routine questions about their luggage at check-in counters (e.g. “Did you pack your own bags?”)
  • Most airlines no longer check a passenger’s photo identification again at the departure gate, which used to be more common.
  • The TSA implemented a new type of explosives-detection technology (so called “puffer machines”) in some airports beginning in 2005, but removed them by 2009.
  • In 2003, the T.S.A. largely discontinued additional random screening at departure gates, although it re-implemented the screenings in 2008.
  • Over the weekend, the T.S.A. announced that pilots would be exempt from the new screening procedures.

It is perhaps foolish to predict how the T.S.A. will respond this time — when they have relaxed rules in the past, they have done so quietly, rather than in response to some acute public backlash. But caution aside, I would be surprised if the new procedures survived much past the New Year without significant modification.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.