Public Opinion Watch

(covering polls and related articles from the week of March 13- March 19, 2006)

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

The Iraq War: Three Years On

The Economy: Five Years On

2006 Campaign Watch

The Iraq War: Three Years On

The Iraq war began on March 20, 2003, so this Monday was the three year anniversary of the war. A number of polling organizations have taken advantage of this milestone to conduct extensive polling on the public’s current views of the war.

The largest such effort was by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Here are some of their key findings, as summarized at the beginning of their report, Americans on Iraq: Three Years On (PDF):

“By a two-to-one margin, Americans now say that the Iraq war was a war of choice, not a war of necessity — i.e., it was not necessary for the defense of the U.S. — and that the war was not the best use of U.S. resources. For the first time, a majority now believes that Iraq did not have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, though the public is still divided on whether Iraq supported al-Qaeda. Such beliefs are highly correlated with support for the war. A large bipartisan majority says that if Iraq did not have WMD or did not support al-Qaeda, the U.S. should not have gone to war. Majorities in both parties perceive the Bush administration as continuing to say that Iraq did have WMD or a major WMD program and provided substantial support to al-Qaeda.

A large majority of Americans want to begin drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq, although only one in four favors a quick pullout. Two out of three perceive that the situation in Iraq is getting worse, and a clear majority expresses low confidence that the U.S. intervention will succeed. A majority is not convinced that a U.S. withdrawal would make the situation in Iraq worse than it is. Support for drawing down U.S. troops does not appear to be related to the growing number of U.S. troop fatalities. The strongest factor appears to be the perception that the presence of U.S. troops provokes more attacks, followed by the lack of confidence that the operation will ultimately succeed.

A large bipartisan majority of Americans oppose permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq and believe that most Iraqis are opposed as well, but a modest majority believes that the U.S. nonetheless plans to have permanent bases. A large majority thinks that the U.S. should be willing to accept a new Iraqi government setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and thinks that most Iraqis want such a timeline, but an overwhelming majority thinks that the U.S. would refuse to agree to such a timeline.”

There’s more in the report. I urge you to take a look at it.

Gallup has also conducted a great deal of recent polling on Iraq and has issued a report, Three Years of War Have Eroded Public Support, comparing their most recent data to past data they have collected. Among their findings:

“The poll shows that 60% of Americans today say the war is not worth it, while in March 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq began, only 29% said it was not worth it to go to war.

At the time, 69% of Americans said the United States would “certainly” win; today just 22% have that level of confidence. Also, at the time the war was launched, just 4% of the public thought it either unlikely the United States would win, or certain it would not win; today 41% are that pessimistic=

By 73% to 24%, Americans said the war was morally justified when it began; today the public is divided, with 47% saying it is morally justified and 50% saying it is not.

Part of the Bush administration’s justification for going to war was that such an undertaking would be part of the wider war on terrorism. Americans were divided on this issue in January 2003, with 50% agreeing and 48% disagreeing with the Bush administration. By August 2003, the public agreed by a larger margin, 57% to 41%. Today Americans reject the link between the war in Iraq and the wider war on terrorism by 53% to 44%.

Shortly before the war began, 51% of Americans thought the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein targeted a leader who had personally been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while 41% disagreed. Today, by 54% to 39%, Americans say the Iraqi leader was not personally involved in the attacks.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, a May/June 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed most Americans rejected the charge that the Bush administration deliberately misled the public about the matter, by 67% to 31%. Today, a slight majority, 51% to 46%, believes the Bush administration did deliberately mislead the public.”

All very interesting. But perhaps the most interesting finding is this. Gallup asked a question that gave respondents four different options for dealing with the war in Iraq: withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately, withdraw all troops by March 2007 — that is, in 12 months’ time, withdraw troops but take as many years to do this as are needed to turn control over to the Iraqis, or send more troops to Iraq. The response is a clear majority (54 percent) for withdrawing all troops within a year, with 19 percent wanting immediate withdrawal and another 35 percent favoring withdrawal by March 2007.

That seems pretty clear. And how about this other fact provided by Gallup: In early August 1970, Gallup asked the same question about the Vietnam War, giving respondents the same four options and found 48 percent wanted to either leave immediately (23 percent) or within a year (25 percent). In other words, there is stronger sentiment now for leaving Iraq within a year than there was about leaving Vietnam within a year in 1970, after the killings at Kent State and at practically the height of antiwar movement.

Now that’s impressive.

One final note: Bush’s approval rating on Iraq has now dipped below 30 percent for the first time in a major public poll. In the latest Newsweek poll, his approval rating on Iraq is 29 percent, with 65 percent disapproval. Based on the rest of the data reviewed here, I’d say we’re likely to see more sub-30 Bush approval ratings on Iraq in the future.

The Economy: Five Years On

Bush has had more than five years to convince the public that he knows what he’s doing on the economy and that his policies really are working. So far, no sale, despite some recent fairly positive macroeconomic news. Here’s the latest Gallup data on public views of the economy:

“Americans continue to resist giving the nation’s economy positive ratings, regardless of what so-called “hard” economic indicators may show. Only about a third of Americans rate the current economy as excellent or good, and six out of 10 say the economy is getting worse, not better. In general, these ratings are slightly worse than earlier this year, although still not as negative as they were early last fall after Hurricane Katrina and the rapid run-up in the price of gasoline.”

As the report notes, Republicans, more than ever, are left “all alone” in having positive views of the economy. In the latest data, only 20 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of independents feel the economy is in good or excellent shape, compared to 60 percent of Republicans. Similarly, just 15 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of independents feel the economy is getting better, compared to 54 percent of Republicans.

More evidence for the “Indycrat” phenomenon, where independents and Democrats (Indycrats) see eye-to-eye on the policies and priorities of the Bush administration — which they find very wanting indeed — while Republicans are seemingly off on a different planet.

2006 Campaign Watch

Data continue to pour in, suggesting just how unfavorable the political environment has become for the GOP in this election year. Here are the high points:

1. In the latest Pew Research Center poll (PDF), Bush’s approval rating is down to 33 percent, his lowest ever in a public poll, which includes ratings of just 73 percent among Republicans and 26 percent among independents.

The report provides a fascinating table showing just how much ground Bush has lost among various GOP base groups since January 2005. This includes approval declines of 16 points among conservative Republicans, 18 points among white evangelicals and 21 points among white men. In short, a Karl Rove nightmare.

2. The same poll shows just how profoundly Bush’s personal standing has eroded with the public. At this point, only 44 percent view Bush as a strong leader, 43 percent think he’s able to get things done, 42 percent think he cares about people like them, 40 percent think he’s trustworthy, 38 percent think he’s well informed, and 35 percent think he’s a good manager.

You’d almost think they didn’t like the guy.

Pew also does a one-word description exercise on Bush, which is quite interesting. One-word descriptions now run 48 percent negative/28 percent positive, compared to 52 percent positive/27 percent negative in May 2003.

Since February 2005, when the most common one-word description of Bush was “honest” (38 percent) and “incompetent” was only at 14 percent, these descriptions have switched positions. Incompetent is now at 29 percent — the most common description — and honest is at 14 percent. Other negative descriptions of Bush have also increased substantially — “idiot” (up to 21 percent) and “liar” (up to 17 percent).

Like I say, you’d almost think they didn’t like the guy.

3. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal (NBC/WSJ) poll (PDF) indicates that Bush is likely to be a considerable liability to the GOP this November, that the election is becoming nationalized and that there is likely to be an enthusiasm gap that disadvantages the GOP.

On the liability issue, the poll shows that, by 37-20, voters are seeing their vote as a signal of opposition to, not support for, Bush. That compares to 31-19 the other way in October of 2002.

On the nationalization issue, by 44-40, voters now say that their representative’s position on national issues will be more important than their representative’s performance in taking care of district problems. That compares to 35 percent national/51 percent district in October of 1994, an election that was supposedly successfully nationalized by the GOP.

On the enthusiasm gap issue, here’s Charlie Cook on the NBC/WSJ results:

“When Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff interviewed 893 registered voters in their March 10-13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, they asked voters how interested they were in this November’s midterm election on a scale of one to 10, with one representing not at all interested and 10 being very interested.

The result: 53 percent of Democrats chose 10, compared to only 43 percent of Republicans. And only 34 percent of independents were 10s. Only 7 percent of Democrats, and the same percentage of Republicans, chose 9, so that doesn’t close the gap much.

To look at the same situation from a slightly different angle, of those who said they preferred to see Democrats in control of Congress after the November elections, 53 percent chose 10, but of those that wanted to see Republicans in control, only 38 percent chose 10.

Nobody knows what will transpire between now and November and how much intensity each party’s voters will have, but as of now, Democrats have a pronounced intensity advantage and enough of one to probably outweigh the GOP organizational edge.”

Given the other data reviewed above, that enthusiasm gap sounds like it’s probably got legs.

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