Summary of Findings

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Public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq has declined sharply since last August. Today, just 28% of adults are able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. As of March 10, the Department of Defense had confirmed the deaths of 3,974 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

In August 2007, 54% correctly identified the fatality level at that time (about 3,500 deaths). In previous polls going back to the spring of 2004, about half of respondents could correctly estimate the number of U.S. fatalities around the time of the survey.

In the current poll, more respondents underestimated than overestimated the number of fatalities. A plurality of 35% said that there have been about 3,000 troop deaths, and another 11% said there have been 2,000 deaths. Just under a quarter (23%) said the number of fatalities is closer to 5,000.

The drop in awareness comes as press attention to the war has waned. According to the News Content Index conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the percentage of news stories devoted to the war has sharply declined since last year, dropping from an average of 15% of the newshole in July to just 3% in February.

As news coverage of the war has diminished, so too has public interest in news about Iraq. According to Pew’s News Interest Index survey, Iraq was the public’s most closely followed news story in all but five weeks during the first half of 2007; however, it was a much less dominant story between July 2007 and February 2008. Notably, the Iraq war has not been the public’s top weekly story since mid-October.

Along with declining interest in news about Iraq, a Pew poll last month found a significant increase in the number of Americans who believe that military progress is being made in Iraq. However, the public remains divided about when to remove troops and a majority continues to say that the war was the wrong decision. See Obama Has The Lead, But Potential Problems Too, February 28, 2008.

Awareness of the number of troop deaths has declined substantially among every demographic group, including the well-educated. College graduates in August were somewhat more likely than other respondents to correctly identify the level of troop deaths (60% correct, vs. 51% for those with some college experience and 47% for those with no college experience). Now, college graduates are no more likely than other groups to know the number of deaths. The proportion of Republicans who can correctly identify the number of troop deaths fell by half between August and the current poll (down 27 points from 53% to 26%). The same is true of independents (down 30 points from 59% to 29%).

Pew News IQ

The current Pew News IQ survey provides an updated look at the public’s knowledge of political and world affairs. A total of 1,003 adults were interviewed Feb. 28-March 2 and asked to answer a series of 12 multiple choice questions. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.A large majority of those interviewed (84%) correctly named Oprah Winfrey as the talk show host who has campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Seven-in-ten (70%) were able to name the Democratic Party as having a majority in the U.S. House; in August, 78% could do so. An identical percentage (70%) could identify Condoleezza Rice as the U.S. Secretary of State.

The percentage able to name the Sunnis as the branch of Islam competing for control of Iraq with the Shiites was 62%, five points lower than in August and the same percentage as in March 2007. A majority of Americans (56%) also knew that Sen. John McCain represents Arizona. Half were able to identify Hugo Chavez as the President of Venezuela, while fewer than half (46%) were aware that Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

Only four-in-ten knew that Howard Dean is chair of the Democratic National Committee. Approximately one-third (35%) could identify Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. And 31% could correctly place the Dow Jones Industrial Average at around 12,000, down from 41% in August who knew that it was around 13,000 at the time. The level of knowledge about the Dow is now about what it was in May 2000, when 28% knew that the index was around 10,000.

The toughest question on the survey asked respondents to choose the current Senate majority leader from a list of four men. Fewer than one-in-four (24%) could identify Harry Reid as the Senate leader.

On average, respondents could correctly answer approximately six out of twelve questions (mean 5.97; median 6.0). There were substantial differences in knowledge levels across demographic groups. Men could correctly answer an average of 6.7 of the 12 questions; women could answer an average of 5.3 questions. College graduates could correctly answer an average of nearly three more questions than could respondents with no college experience (7.4 vs. 4.5). And respondents 50 and older could correctly answer an average of about two more questions than those under age 30 (6.7 vs. 4.6).

Who Knows What?

Some demographic and political differences stood out:

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not nearly well known as his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In August, 74% of the public correctly identified Pelosi as the Speaker, while in the current news quiz fewer than one-in-four (24%) know that Harry Reid leads the Senate. More Republicans (34%) and independents (24%) than Democrats (19%) can identify the majority leader.
  • More than half of the general public (56%) knows that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate; however only three-in-ten Americans under age 30 could identify McCain’s home state. That compares with solid majorities of 30 to 49 year olds (59%) and those age 50 or older (67%). Roughly two-thirds (64%) of registered voters knew that John McCain is from Arizona, more than twice the number of nonvoters (26%) who answered this question correctly.
  • More women (88%) than men (81%) know that Oprah Winfrey is backing Sen. Obama.
  • High-income Americans are much more likely than those with lower incomes to know the level of the Dow and to know that Ben Bernanke is the Federal Reserve chairman.