Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iraq Opinion Review

With President Bush set to speak to the nation tonight on a new Iraq strategy I thought is was a good time to review the recent opinion trends related to Iraq.

The graph above compares approval of Bush's overall job with approval of his handling of Iraq. The two have generally trended together and mostly "bounced" together. What is interesting is the change over the fall of 2006 when the Iraq job approval declined sharply while the overall job decline was less and has recently been relatively flat. The sharp decline is based on a decent number of polls, so is not likely to be an artifact of a small number of polls.

I suspect this decline is a combination of the impact of increased sectarian fighting in Iraq along with the fall campaign's critique of Republicans generally and of the President's handling of the war specifically. Whatever the cause, the sharp decline raises questions of how much credibility the White House has left to leverage support for the new strategy we will hear about tonight. While the latest CBS News poll found 61% of Republicans still supporting the President on Iraq, only 21% of Independents did and a stunning 3% of Democrats.

If Republicans in Congress give good support for the President's new plan, I expect to see an increase in approval among the Republican public. I'm not nearly so confident that a substantial segment of Independents will be similarly encouraged by the new direction. Certainly there will be a mix of both positive and negative reaction to the speech, and Independents are already predisposed by their low 21% support to accept negative interpretations of the policy rather than positive ones. Unless the speech is particularly persuasive, or the supportive reaction particularly strong, I don't think it likely that Independents will move up in support by very much. With virtually no Democrats supporting the President's position on the war it is hard to see how support among that population can be expected to improve.

Until recently, approval of Bush's handling of Iraq was just a few points below his overall job approval and the two moved together. Now the sharply increased gap between them suggests that the Iraq opinion is no longer strongly tied to overall views of his performance. Tonight's speech may restore that linkage, though not necessarily to the President's benefit. When approval has shrunk as low as it has for Iraq, I'm not sure you can "borrow capital" from overall approval (itself low at 34.9% based on my trend estimate) to shore up support for Iraq. Instead, I suspect that support must be found in external reaction from credible Republicans and news sources. If that happens, support may improve at least temporarily. If reaction among those sources is sharply divided it is hard to see how support for the President can be improved.

The second aspect of support is to shift the argument away from the President's handling of the war and on to other aspects of opinion. Here too opinion is more negative than positive, but it is much less negative than approval of the President is. The plot below illustrates this. While more citizens now think the was was a mistake and not worth the cost than think otherwise, the gaps here are less stark than for Bush Iraq approval.

Americans remain reluctant to say that the US did the "wrong" thing or made a "mistake" in starting the war. While "wrong" or "mistake" has now climbed into the 50s, making it the majority response, those rejecting this view have continued to hang in the 40s, rather than collapse into the 20s as has Bush approval on Iraq. Those thinking the war has been worth it have declined to the high 30s or low 40s. Again, not support for the war on balance, but less negativity than we see for Bush's handling. My point is not that there is strong support for the war. That clearly is false. But there are almost twice as many people who think the war was justified and worthwhile than there are those who think the administration has done a good job handling the war. If these constituencies can be persuaded that the new policies offer a hope of success in a war that was both justified and worth the cost, support might indeed increase at least to the ceiling of 40-45% that these groups represent. That would certainly be an improvement from the White House's perspective.

The Gallup poll taken 1/5-7/07 also suggests the opinion niches which may be persuadable on Iraq policy. Despite all the negativity cited above, a surprising 50% think the U.S. is either "certain" (16%) or "likely" (34%) to win the war in Iraq. Forty-six percent think not: 28% say unlikely and 18% say certain not to win. Given the situation in Iraq, this represents a surprising confidence that the outcome remains "winnable." And it offers the President his best chance of gaining support for his policy by playing to these remaining hopes.

On the specific issue of increasing the number of troops ("surge" or "escalation", as you prefer), 54% are clearly on the other side from the President, with 15% saying withdraw immediately and 39% saying withdraw by a year from now. But that leaves 43% on the President's side: 31% say take as long as is needed and 12% saying send more troops. So again the opportunity continued to exist to convince a substantial number of potential supporters to approve of the new plan.

Asked by Gallup if the U.S. can achieve its goals in Iraq "only with more troops", "without more troops" or "cannot achieve its goals regardless of troops", only 47% say the US cannot achieve its goals. Forty-eight percent think we can achieve our goals (23% with more troops, 25% without more.) Again, about an even split in the view that the US can ultimately succeed in Iraq, and the President's mission to convince the 25% that think troops aren't needed to nevertheless think it is a good idea to add troops.

Finally, the increase troops option on its own has only 36% support and 61% opposition. But that is where the speech tonight bears the burden of convincing some of these (only some, not all!) that the increase will bring improvement in the situation. Put together, if the President can muster support from something on the order of 45% of the public in favor of his plan, he will improve his standing (though not necessarily lead him to majority support.) From the White House's perspective, an improvement of this order of magnitude would be a significant move in the right direction.

I've focused here on the potential for increased support because I've seen little talk of this in most polling analysis. By focusing too exclusively on Bush's Iraq job approval, which is shockingly low, we tend to overlook other areas where the public is not as negative or pessimistic.

Among Democrats, these numbers would be far, far less positive. That provides the party (and especially party leaders and presidential hopefuls) a strong incentive to continue a critique of the war and of Bush policy. But the overall balance of opinion is not so overwhelmingly negative as the one indicator of Bush approval suggests. While the public judges administration performance to be terrible, there remain significant reservoirs of support for the goals and even optimism over probable outcomes. Whether those are justified or not, both parties face an electorate that is not yet solidly against the war nor solidly in favor. There is still persuasion to be done by both sides.