Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ten Months of Opinion Change on War and More

While I've been doing back room work the last two months, some interesting changes have taken place in opinion about the war, the president, congress and the country. It is too early, and the changes too modest, to declare this a "turning point" in opinion, but the changes are consistent enough to take a hard look and ponder if there is still potential for significant shifts over the next 52 weeks until Election Day 2008.

The single most striking shift is the change in opinion about how the war in Iraq is going. After four and a half years of steady downward trends, there has been a reversal of direction since July.

CBS, CNN and Pew have asked "How well is the military effort in Iraq going?" since the war started (with some minor variation in wording. See the details here.) The virtue of this question is its consistent use over time and its summary evaluation of the war.

President Bush's change of policy in Iraq in January, coupling a change of command with a surge of troop levels did not produce immediately positive responses from the public. Likewise the rise in U.S. casualties in the spring following the change in deployment strategy certainly might have been expected to further erode support for the war and for Bush.

But in retrospect the actions have been accompanied by two phases of changing opinion on "how the war is going". From January through June, the long running collapse in positive evaluation of the war (especially in the second half of 2006) halted. The flattening now appears to have clearly coincided with the change in command and troop levels.

This flattening didn't signal rising opinion on the war-- but after dropping over 13 percentage points in six months, simply arresting the collapse was a major plus for the administration. And this is a particularly striking thing given that the spring of 2007 was a focal point for critiques of the war in Congress, with Democratic leadership repeatedly pushing votes that would have required changes in Iraq policy of various kinds. And this flattening came at the same time that casualties rose.

The second phase of opinion change started in early July, when positive evaluations of the war took their first upturn since late 2003 (around the time of the capture of Saddam Husein). The trend estimate has turned up some 8 percentage points since July 1, still not back to early 2006 levels, but remarkable this late in an unpopular war and with a weak leader and determined opposition.

It is also worth noting that this is not just a shift due to "undecided" citizens shifting. The percentage saying the war is going badly also stabilized through the spring and has turned down to about 58%, from a high of 69% at the end of 2006.

Through the spring, conservatives and Republican supporters of President Bush argued for "giving the surge a chance". This rhetoric shifted in the summer to claims that "the surge has worked". Meanwhile Democrats and liberals pushed for a timetable for withdrawal through the spring and early summer. Very few citizens have a clear idea of any quantitative measures of how the war is "actually" going. Even trends in American deaths are rarely comprehensively presented in news reports (though sometimes mentioned in passing as "factoids".) And even among supporters of the war claims of "success of the surge" were rarely supported by direct evidence. (An exception to the lack of evidence was a widely debated op-ed piece in the New York Times by Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution on July 30. O'Hanlon has produced the comprehensive "Iraq Index" at Brookings, an invaluable compilation of measurable trends in the war. Ironically, the op-ed piece was based on "anecdotes" from a visit to Iraq rather than quantitative measures.)

But citizens don't shift their opinion based on quantified measures of progress, nor even New York Times or Weekly Standard articles. For most citizens, opinions are driven more by the messages they hear from partisan leaders, with some sifting for credibility of the claims and filtering by predispositions. And, it must be added, by some effects of "reality", whatever that is.

The current upturn in positive views of the war then reflect perhaps some bits of success on the ground. US deaths are down. Iraqi civilian deaths are down. But if it were casualties alone that drove opinion, positive views should have fallen sharply in the spring as the death tolls of both US troops and Iraqis increased. Instead opinion became flat. So it would be too simple minded to imagine a direct causal effect of casualties on views of the war.

So what to make of the upturn in positive views of how the war is going? Republicans (including the president) have made real progress in swaying opinion to their side, while 10 months of Democratic efforts have failed to persuade citizens that the war continues to be a disaster. The war of partisan persuasion has tilted towards the Republicans and away from the Democrats, at least in this particular aspect.

Let's be clear: the trend estimate is that only 38% think the war is going well, while 58% say it is not going well. The balance remains on the pessimistic side and by a 20 point margin. What I am talking about is the change in trend and the shift of marginal opinion. But that is a telling indicator. On election day a year ago today, the partisan war for public opinion seemed to have decisively shifted to the Democratic view. The notion that there was nothing the White House could do to reverse their public losses of support was widespread. But the last 10 months show that indeed there was something that could change and this change is important.

Much could still change before election day 2008, twelve months from today. Either positively or negatively for the war, and even more so for the candidates currently seeking to inherit the war from President Bush. But the past 10 months of opinion on how the war is going should serve as a reminder that the politics of war, like politics in general, is always open to change.

Postscript: Opinion on the war, and on politics and politicians is, of course, complex. I'm confident many will object to what I've left out above (as well as what I've included!). But take a look at the trends presented below. Across other measures of war opinion, a stabilization (not necessarily much of a rise) has taken place. Even evaluation of Bush's handling of the war rose for a while (though is currently headed back down.)

Overall evaluation of Bush has turned up since July.

Right track or wrong direction has flattened recently.

Even opinion of Congress has stabilized (though see the links to party performance from the thumbnails in the column to the right.)

There are some changes taking place in trends that have been taken for granted. It is time to reexamine our easy and comfortable assumptions.