Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of November 14-November 20, 2005)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• The Iraq Situation Isn’t as Bad as It Seems for the Bush Administration: It’s Worse

• Republicans Vs. Democrats on the Issues

The Iraq Situation Isn’t as Bad as It Seems for the Bush Administration: It’s Worse

Here is a brief review of the public’s current views on the Iraq situation.

1. The public overwhelmingly disapproves of the job Bush is doing handling the Iraq situation. His approval rating is now in the low 30s in most polls, with well over 60 percent disapproving. In fact, one poll (Newsweek) had his rating at exactly 30 percent, indicating that we may soon see Bush’s first sub-30 approval rating on Iraq.

2. In the latest Gallup poll, 54 percent say the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to Iraq. This is the same as Gallup’s previous reading on the question and exactly at the average of Gallup polls taken since early August. In other words, majoritarian sentiment that the Iraq war was a mistake has stabilized.

3. In the same poll, sentiment that “all in all” it wasn’t worth going to war in Iraq hit a new high of 60 percent, compared to just 38 percent who felt the war was worth it.

4. The poll also offered respondents four options for dealing with the Iraq situation: withdraw all troops now, withdraw all troops within 12 months, withdraw troops but take as long as needed to turn control over to the Iraqis or send more troops. The majority (52 percent) wants to either withdraw now (19 percent) or within 12 months (33 percent). The latest Harris poll shows an even larger majority (63 percent) in favor of bringing most troops home within a year, based on a question that reads: “Do you favor keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there OR bringing most of our troops home in the next year?”

Of course, questions on troop withdrawal are very sensitive to question wording, including number being withdrawn (some vs. all), conditions necessary to trigger withdrawal, projected length of stay and magnitude of continued troop presence, so one must be cautious in interpreting the results cited above. However, all questions, no matter how they were worded, show strong growth in the number calling for troop withdrawal or a decrease in U.S. troops, so the trend is not in doubt, even if the exact magnitude of withdrawal sentiment can be debated.

5. The public has become ever more convinced that the Bush administration actively and consciously lied to the American people in order to promote the Iraq war. In the Newsweek poll, 52 percent thought that Cheney “deliberately misused or manipulated pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities,” compared to just 33 percent who thought he did not. And in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the number believing Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq” has reached 57 percent, with only 35 percent dissenting.

Figures like these help explain how Bush’s ratings on personal characteristics have tanked across the board. In the Gallup poll, by 52-46, the public doesn’t think “honest and trustworthy” applies to Bush; by 55-43, they don’t think “can manage the government effectively” applies to Bush and, by 55-43, they don’t believe “shares your values” applies to him either.

Well, all this is bad, bad, bad for the Bush administration. But the worse news for them is this: based on how public opinion has evolved during this war and historical patterns during other wars, there is very little the Bush administration can do to stem the current decline in public support. That’s the message of John Mueller’s excellent, lucid piece, “The Iraq Syndrome” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Mueller is perhaps the pre-eminent academic expert on war and American public opinion and the entire article is worth a careful read, but here are some key excerpts from the piece:

“The most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars [Korea, Vietnam and Iraq] is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005, when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who considered the Iraq war a mistake — over half — was about the same as the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, when nearly 20,000 soldiers had already died.

This lower tolerance for casualties is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam. The main threats Iraq was thought to present to the United States when troops went in — weapons of mass destruction and support for international terrorism — have been, to say the least, discounted. With those justifications gone, the Iraq war is left as something of a humanitarian venture, and, as Francis Fukuyama has put it, a request to spend "several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to … Iraq" would "have been laughed out of court."…

Growing opposition to the war effort … has little to do with whether or not there is an active antiwar movement at home. There has not been much of one in the case of the Iraq war, nor was there one during the war in Korea. Nonetheless, support for those ventures eroded as it did during the Vietnam War, when antiwar protest was frequent and visible….

Moreover, support for the war declines whether or not war opponents are able to come up with specific policy alternatives. Dwight Eisenhower never seemed to have much of a plan for getting out of the Korean War — although he did say that, if elected, he would visit the place — but discontent with the war still worked well for him in the 1952 election; Richard Nixon's proposals for fixing the Vietnam mess were distinctly unspecific, although he did from time to time mutter that he had a "secret plan." Wars hurt the war-initiating political party not because the opposition comes up with a coherent clashing vision — George McGovern tried that, with little success, against Nixon in 1972 — but because discontent over the war translates into vague distrust of the capacities of the people running the country.”

Mueller believes reaction to this war will inevitably produce a sort of “Iraq syndrome” where the public seeks to avoid any possibly Iraq-like foreign entanglements. While it is possible that such a syndrome could lead to an unhealthy withdrawal from international engagement, Mueller summarizes some other aspects of an Iraq syndrome that could be quite salubrious:

“Among the casualties of the Iraq syndrome could be the Bush doctrine, unilateralism, preemption, preventive war, and indispensable-nationhood. Indeed, these once-fashionable (and sometimes self-infatuated) concepts are already picking up a patina of quaintness. Specifically, there will likely be growing skepticism about various key notions: that the United States should take unilateral military action to correct situations or overthrow regimes it considers reprehensible but that present no immediate threat to it, that it can and should forcibly bring democracy to other nations not now so blessed, that it has the duty to rid the world of evil, that having by far the largest defense budget in the world is necessary and broadly beneficial, that international cooperation is of only very limited value, and that Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners are naive and decadent wimps. The United States may also become more inclined to seek international cooperation, sometimes even showing signs of humility.”

We shall see – though such developments seem unlikely under the current administration’s watch.

Republicans vs. Democrats on the Issues

As Bush’s image continues to erode, as evidenced by his sliding approval ratings and sharp increase in negative personal evaluations, his party’s image is also not doing so well. Exhibit A is the very wide range of issues on which the public now prefers Democrats over Republicans, mostly by double digit margins.

Here are data from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on which party the public thinks would do a better job on various issues: protecting the environment (+39 points in favor of the Democrats); dealing with gas prices (+28); dealing with health care (+26); dealing with Social Security (+22); reducing the federal deficit (+19); dealing with education (+19); dealing with energy policy (+16); dealing with the economy (+14); controlling government spending (+12); dealing with taxes (+10); protecting America’s interests on trade issues (+10); dealing with foreign policy (+9); dealing with abortion (+8); dealing with immigration; promoting ethics in government (+5); and dealing with Iraq (+3).

On four of these issues – taxes, foreign policy, Iraq and protecting America’s interests on trade issues – this is the very first time the Democrats have run an advantage on that issue in the NBC News poll. On many others, the Democrats’ advantages are at or near the top of those ever recorded by the poll.

The October 19-23 Democracy Corps poll takes a slightly different approach to testing Democrats against Republicans, asking respondents which party they associate more with a series of positive terms. Again, Democrats are preferred over Republicans on a wide range of these terms: for people, rather than big general interests (+31); for the middle class (+27); cares about people (+26); putting the public interest first (+24); reform and change (+18); on your side (+11); improving America (+11); new ideas for addressing the country’s problems (+11); opportunity (+8); for families (+7); America respected in the world (+7); trustworthy (+6); shares your values (+5); and think long-term, not just short-term (+2). On one other characteristic – creating prosperity – the parties are tied.

These are certainly impressive lists. Add to this the gaudy generic congressional contest margins Democrats have been running in many recent polls (in the recent Newsweek poll, the Democrats were up by an amazing 17 points, including a nearly 2:1 margin among independents) and the situation would appear to be very dire for the GOP.

However, there are a number of mitigating factors that make big GOP losses in 2006 far from certain.

1. The Republicans have lost ground on all issues but do retain some advantages that must be reckoned with. In the NBC News poll, for example, the GOP is still ahead on ensuring a strong national defense (+21), promoting strong moral values (+17) and dealing with the war on terrorism (+9). (The magnitude of the latter lead must be troubling for Republicans, however – before the 2002 election, their lead on the terrorism issue was literally four times as large and Bush’s approval rating on the issue was 67 percent, not the 39 percent he’s getting today.)

2. The Republicans also retain some important leads on party associations like know what they stand for (+14) and security and keeping people safe (+13). The Republican lead on the former characteristic is underscored by a NBC News finding that only 11 percent think the Democrats have a “very clear message and vision for the future,” 7 points less than believe that about the Republicans, and 45 percent believe the Democrats don’t have a clear message and vision for the future, 9 points more than think that about the Republicans.

3. Generic congressional contest leads are not very predictive, if predictive at all, this far out from an election. After all, the Democrats were actually ahead of the Republicans by 7 points in the generic congressional contest in November 1993, one year before the very, very good Republican year of 1994.

4. There are structural reasons why Democrats may have difficulties translating their substantial issue advantages and Republicans’ political woes into big gains in November 2006, ranging from the concentration of Democratic votes in House districts that are lopsidedly Democratic (a problem that has been exacerbated by GOP-led redistricting efforts) to a well-oiled GOP political apparatus with an extensive bag of tricks designed to insulate the party from the consequences of its unpopular policies. All these advantages are usefully summarized by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their New York Times magazine piece last Sunday (which should whet your appetite for reading their excellent new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy).

5. Finally, while Democrats have gained a number of substantial advantages, some important ones are still quite small and may hold them back from generating the support they need to overcome the considerable obstacles just mentioned. For example, their advantage on Iraq in the NBC News poll was only 3 points. And on a number of key characteristic in the DCorps poll, their advantages were still quite modest: opportunity (8 points), for families (7 points), shares your values (5 points) and creating prosperity (tie).

Then there are the party favorability and thermometer ratings, which continue to show only slight Democratic advantages, indicating the Democrats’ overall image has not improved to match their considerable gains in issue areas.

In short, voters are still much surer of what they don’t like (Republican policies and Bush’s job as president) than of what they might like (Democratic policies and leadership). It’s up to Democrats to clarify that situation, starting with, finally, convincing the American public they know what they stand for.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.