Articles and Analysis


Michael Cobb on NCSU Iraq Survey

Topics: Internet Polls , Iraq

Dr. Cobb is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University who specializes in survey research and polling methods.

In a recent poll that Dr. William Boettcher and I conducted with the Institute for Southern Studies, we asked some unique questions about Iraq and we received some unexpected answers. The poll was administered by Knowledge Networks, Inc., included 1,342 respondents, and was conducted from Sept. 19-26. The margin of sampling error for the national sample is plus or minus 2.7 percent.

Bill and I are interested in the perceived goals and probability of success in Iraq, but when we looked around we could not find many surveys asking people what they thought was the primary US goal. Questions about goals were mostly limited to asking whether Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, and a few asked about whether Iraq was already experiencing a civil war.

So, in one question on our survey, we asked respondents what they thought was the primary US goal in Iraq. We asked respondents to choose one goal among four possible alternative mission objectives, but we also permitted respondents to answer "something else" and to subsequently type in their response (one advantage of using Knowledge Networks is that this facilitates the ability to record open ended responses). The question is as follows:

The following are commonly cited as US goals in Iraq. Which one do you think is the primary reason the US is in Iraq today?

  • Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism
  • We are promoting Democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East
  • We are preventing Iraq from sliding into a civil war
  • We want to ensure access to oil
  • Something else_____________

What caught our attention was the answer distribution that resulted in a plurality of respondents identifying "access to oil" as the main reason we are currently in Iraq. After we re-coded a majority of the "something else" responses into one new "objective" or back into one of the original four goals, the breakdown was as follows (before we coded the something else responses, 15% had said something else and oil was just 30%):

Oil = 34%
Terrorism = 26%
Democracy = 25%
Preventing Civil War = 7%
General cynicism about/towards Bush = 7%

To be perfectly honest, we had a hard time determining a non-administration preferred mission frame, and belatedly added "oil" as our fourth alternative. We certainly did not expect oil to be the plurality response. Not only is the goal of access to oil rarely mentioned in the mainstream media coverage about Iraq, but also when oil is mentioned as a goal, it is often framed as a crackpot conspiracy.

So my question is this: why are people picking oil as the goal? One explanation is based on the concept of pluralistic ignorance: people privately feel this way but fail to recognize that others also feel the same way, so they are reluctant to speak out and we fail to recognize shared beliefs. Another similar explanation is that the answer of ensuring access to oil is indeed literally what people think we are doing in Iraq but that elites, the media and academics have failed to notice this indicator of deep cynicism about Iraq,s o we don't discuss it. A third explanation is that many people who picked oil do not literally believe this is the primary goal, but the answer options we provided left them with little choice but to choose oil since (a) they reject the administration goals of terror and democracy and (b) preventing civil war is still a noble cause. Some people have argued that we provided respondents with the opportunity to say, "something else", but we know that respondents will choose among the alternatives given even though they would behave different in given an open-ended response option (keep in mind, a surprisingly large percentage of the sample (15%) indeed originally chose "something else".

To help with an analysis of this question, here are two cross-tabulations of the perceived goal with (1) the importance respondents' place on the US achieving that goal and (2) party identification (note: we don't have importance ratings for respondents who originally said, "something else".):



We have our interpretation of these data, but don't want to bias the discussion, so we offer our thanks in advance for any comments on our provocative data...




Very interesting. Did you have results for Indepedents? They often seem to reveal more high-impact intelligence on the national mood than those who self-identify as Dems or Republicans.


Mike Rose:

Did you have a question that indicated how the respondant thought the war was going?

I ask because it's possible the reason may be correlated with the percioeved outcome (someone who thinks there was a "more noble" goal -- e.g., democracy may choose to think the war is going better, while those who think the war is going poorly may choose a less noble goal (oil). It might make one's perception of the "progress" easier to for one to accept.... (I suppose it still would not indicate which one is the causative factor if, in fact, either is.)


Michael Cobb:


One problem I have with our Knowledge Network data is that their coding of PID leaves very few independents (which may or may not be a more valid measurement strategy) and so we don't have much data to analyze. Their measurement of political ideology, however, is "standard". Using this measure we find the about 45% of moderates say oil is the primary reason the US is currently in Iraq.


Jim S:

Well, why are we interested in the Middle East at all? In the end it comes down to oil. If so much of the world's supply didn't come from such a politically volatile region why wouldn't the attitude be "Let them destroy themselves."? If there wasn't so much oil money floating around to be diverted to terrorist organizations where would there funding come from? Just think on it a bit. What would the geopolitical situation be right now if the Middle Eastern reserves were sitting under Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas and it was the Saudi's reserves that were running very low?



I agree with Jim S's sentiments. Once we found out that there were no WMD in Irak, there was no reason for an Administration that did not believe in nation building to be there. Looking around the world there are many places with severe problems with democracy and civil war--e.g. Sudan and Darfur. What makes Irak disinct is oil--its own and in the region. Thus, oil is a perfectly mainstream response in many ways. You should split the oil response into two types of theories. The "crackpot" theory is that we went into Iraq to control Irak oil. The mainstream theory is that we are staying in Irak because of the importance of regional stability in the oil produing areas.


Mike Rose,

I do have these data. 70% say it was the right thing to do if they also said terrorism was the primary goal; this drops to 59% saying it was the right thing to do for the intermediate goals, and all the way down to 17% if they said we are ensuring access to oil.

I posted my webpage where I have posted the field report and I put updated polling analyses...

Thanks for your comments! Keep them coming!


As an Indy I obviously second Jim's sentiments. And as someone who actually answered this poll I remember wondering why isn't "why" asked more often in these types of polls. For instance, why wasn't the question "Why do you think that we are involved in Iraq for reasons other than those stated by the Bush administration?"

Possible answers,

"A. There have been no WMDs found in Iraq
B. Al-Qaida has never had any connection with Iraq or Saddam Hussein
C. The administration's incestuous ties to oil and oil services companies
D. The adminstration has either changed or emphasized reasons as the realities have contradicted their public statements
E. Those responsible for planning and coordinating 9/11 were never in Iraq
F. The invasion and occupation took place too close to the mid-term elections
G. The administration did not let the weapons inspectors finish in Iraq before invading
H. The administration consist of many high-level signatories of a 1998 letter to President Clinton advocating the use of military force for the purposes of securing the 2nd largest oil reserves in the world and protecting Israel and the moderate Arab states
I. Occam's Razor
J. All of the above"

Although I think that you could answer your own question by making the assumption that despite the fact that our country is plagued by widespread ignorance, misinformation in the form of government propaganda, a sensational, profit-driven and incompetent mass media, overall and eventually, against all odds, plainly stated, the people can't be bull****ted.


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