Monday, September 10, 2007

Three Elements of Iraq War Opinion

This is the week for a review of opinion of the war. There are three questions that have been asked consistently throughout the war.
"Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation in Iraq?"

"All in all, do you think it was worth going to war in Iraq, or not?"

"Do you think going to war with Iraq was the right thing for the United States to do or the wrong thing?"
(There is some variation in the wordings across organizations, but they all aim at these three topics.)

The long run story these question tell is of decreasing support for the war, from quite strong support initially to low levels today.

There is differentiation, however, across these elements. President Bush's handling of the war has consistently been rated lower than the other two after the initial 6 months of the war.

Americans have become dubious of the costs and benefits of the war as well, with less than 40% thinking it worth the cost since early 2006.

But the public has somewhat more trouble believing the war was not the right thing to do. Over 40% continue to think the US did the right thing, even if the costs have outweighed the benefits and the President's handling of the war has been poor.

Flipped, these data show solid majorities believing the war was a mistake, that it has not been worth it and that the President's handling of it has been unimpressive.

So why doesn't public opinion force an immediate end to the war? One reason is because the public is more equivocal as to motivation than to performance, and more equivocal still as to solutions. A referendum on Bush's performance would lead to overwhelming rejection. But a vote on whether the war was fundamentally wrong in the first place finds a substantial minority still supports the war.

When we move to specific policy options, we see similar results. The CBS/New York Times polls taken 9/4-8/07 finds results similar to other recent polls:

Bush War Approval: 26%
War worth cost: 34%
US Did right thing: 41%

(All in the ballpark of the trends above.)

Do you think the Republican or the Democratic party is more likely to make the right decisions about the war in Iraq?:
Republican: 32%
Democratic: 42%

A Democratic advantage, but not an overwhelming one.

What should the US do now?...
Increase Troops: 11%
Keep same: 19%
Decrease troops: 35%
Remove all: 30%

Combining the first two, this is a 30%-35%-30% split. The "swing vote" here is what do the 35% mean when they say "decrease"? Do they have something like General Petraeus presented today, with a draw-down to pre-surge levels by July 2008? Or do they prefer a much more dramatic reduction, and by an earlier deadline? It is this 35% of the population that could produce overwhelming pressure for a large reduction if they turned out to be united with the "remove all troops" group. But if not, they provide a crucial buffer of opinion for the administration and Republican allies.

Likewise, opinion on the effect of the surge is more balanced than opponents of the war might wish:

Would you say the troop increase is making the situation in Iraq better, making it worse or is it having no impact?

Better: 35%
Worse: 12%
No Impact: 45%

While a lot see no impact (and may favor a troop reduction in any case) the 35% seeing improvement is quite striking as a basis for support of the surge. Take some share of the 45% that don't think it has mattered much but who aren't opposed to continuing the surge, and again we have a substantial reservoir of support for current policy, and more importantly we lack an overwhelming consensus in favor of a reversal of current policy. Absent that kind of irresistible opinion force, Republicans in Congress can continue to support the President.

Bottom line: Frustrated anti-war forces are understandably angry that the 2006 election victory and subsequent Democratic Congress has failed to bring change to Iraq policy. The trend lines above show how support for the war has declined dramatically since 2003. Anti-war forces can correctly point to substantial majorities who are critical of various aspects of the war.

But change in Congress also requires that Republican members perceive that opinion against the war is so overwhelming that it is time for them to also abandon ship. That mark in public opinion has not been reached. So long as a substantial minority (say 40%+) support the current policy (or at least oppose a rapid withdrawal) then Republicans can count on a public that is too divided on the issue to pose the certainty of electoral catastrophe. This isn't to say Republicans don't wish the issue would go away, or that they relish running in 2008 with nearly 6 years of inconclusive war on their watch. But opponents of the war will not prevail in Congress unless a more massive opposition emerges--- and one united on the specific details of how to end the war.