Poll: COVID-19 Tops 9/11 as Biggest U.S. Challenge of Past 20 Years

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a new Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll shows a majority of Americans consider COVID the greater challenge

As America approaches the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., a Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll of registered voters shows that the memory of 9/11 is strong but that the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as the biggest challenge the United States has faced.

When asked to choose the biggest challenge faced by the country in the last 20 years, 35% selected the COVID-19 pandemic and 27% identified the 9/11 attacks, while the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, mass shootings, and extreme weather events/climate change each polled at 10%.

All age groups ranked COVID-19 as the No. 1 challenge. But those in middle age, ages 35 to 64 years old, were more likely to choose 9/11 than those who are younger or older. Those under 35 years of age ranked COVID first, but were also much more likely than older age groups to cite mass shootings and extreme weather.

The country’s biggest challenges were seen through different political lenses. Republicans ranked 9/11 first on the list of five challenges at 42%, while Democrats ranked it last, at 8%. Similarly, the poll showed a stark partisan divide in assessing the Jan. 6 insurrection. It was chosen as the most serious challenge by 22% of Democrats, but just 1% of Republicans and 7% of Independents ranked it as the top challenge.

“The partisan divide on which challenges mattered most over the past 20 years is the basis for 2021 divisions in Washington, D.C. today,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “It remains to be seen how Congress can make progress on the biggest challenges facing the country if the political parties don’t agree on what is important.”

20th anniversary of 9/11

By a wide margin — 63% to 36% — voters said that 9/11 had a big impact on their lives, with 70% of those 35-64 years old and 50% of those under 35 years of age saying it held great significance.

Among Americans who were at least 15 years old in 2001, close to 100% “have memories of that day.” And 85% of those surveyed say it had a big impact on their generation. By a margin of 60% to 38%, they say it permanently changed the way Americans live.

Future attacks on the U.S.

Though the poll was fielded entirely before the most recent attacks in Kabul, which killed 13 American soldiers and more than 90 Afghan civilians, nearly half chillingly predicted that there would be terrorist attacks in the U.S. over the next several weeks. Among those polled, 49% said that attacks in the U.S. were very or somewhat likely, while 46% said that attacks were not very or not at all likely.

Among Republicans, 61%, said an attack is likely, compared with 43% of Democrats. Most Democrats, 54%, said it is not likely.

Confidence in the U.S. to protect its citizens

Americans’ confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to protect its citizens from future acts of terrorism is split, with only 1 in 7 (14%) who say they have a “great deal of confidence,” while 37% said they have a “fair amount.” But 25% have “not very much” confidence and 22% have no confidence at all. That’s a 51%-47% divide among respondents who were polled before the Kabul attacks.

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