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Ten Months of Opinion Change on War and More

Topics: Iraq

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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 2 years 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.

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Cross-posted at Political Arithmetik.

 

Comments
Ikke Angivet:
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.

I don't know you position but this fits exactly how entrenched interests (the oligarchic press for example) merrily talk up every little tick in favour of their cause, while sourly downplaying or ignoring significant movements in the opposite direction. The quote sounds as if a large majority now thinks the war is great success, when the opposite is the fact.

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Jerry Skurnik:

Do the polls indicate that the more positive views are coming equally from all voters or is it Republicans "coming back" into the fold?

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david:

I agree with Howard Kurtz. The GOP ought to immediately renew its embrace of the administration's Iraq policy as loudly and publicly as possible. This is a very difficult issue for the Dems.

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Kevin Clearn:

That congressional approval is funny and sad. A lot of people went YAY! right after the election, but when they didn't stop the Iraq madness, their approval fell again.

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Kevin J-M:

I agree with Howard Kurtz. The GOP ought to immediately renew its embrace of the administration's Iraq policy as loudly and publicly as possible. Since the majority of Americans oppose Bush's performance as president, as well as his pet project, the occupation and destruction of Iraq, a wholesale endorsement of this ruinous president and his calamitous war can only mean a Dem landslide in the next election.

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WinSmith:

Much like the violence in Iraq "subsiding" after ethnic cleansing succeeded in killing everyone, simply hitting the floor doesn't mean things are "going better."

This analysis is extremely poor. The rock bottom approval ratings for the war might "uptick" at the floors, but that doesn't mean much of anything. Bush's approval is now below that of Nixon during impeachment talk in 1973.

But I'd love to see republicans continue to embrace this fiasco of a war. They can shout "we're winning!!" until they're blue in the face. Americans are stupid, but we're not that stupid.

Goodbye wingnuts. 2008 is the end of the line for a failed ideology.

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DB:

I think this is what is referred to as a "dead cat bounce"

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I wonder if any of this could ever send those numbers right back through the floor again:

www.asecondlookatthesaudis.com

How could anyone ever say the war is going well, if they realized that we invaded the wrong country to begin with?

If only we had actual journalism, perhaps we would already know.

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C'mon, the answer is obvious.

At the end of August 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr told his Sadr brigade to stop attacking Americans for six months. (Click on my name to see the Fox News story on it at the time.)

Exactly when did US deaths start to fall?

That's right, September 2007.

The reduction in American deaths (and the concomitant rise in US opinion polls about whether the occupation is going well) is not because of anything our military has done; it's entirely the result of the Sadr Brigade taking a temporary time-out.

In the Spring, when our surge is forced by our lack of troops to begin its reduction, the Sadr Brigade will (if we haven't yet declared victory and begun a serious withdrawal of our forces) take its arms up again and start killing Americans.

Doesn't anyone pay attention to reality any more?

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U2:

CNN came out with a poll today with 68% (a high for that poll) disapproving of the war in iraq, even though the violence has slowed. I would say it reflects very accurately people feeling that we have been there for too long and its time to start the withdrawal process. When the GOP wants to spend an extra 200 billion for another year of the war and refuses to spend 5 billion to insure children of families making under 60,000 a year - it kind of pisses most peple off. Which is exactly what is happening here - and which is why the GOP in congress really don't want to seem united with Bush on the war, despite what Kurtz says. Kurtz has long been a beltway GOP tool - it is diffucult to understand what people in Lorain OH are feeling when you remain stuck in DC.

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Raul:

There is a lot of denial about Gen. Petreaus' success in Iraq, although I sense a shift from total confidence in America's defeat...to some people getting really nervous and jumpy about the idea of success.
I see demand for Prozac exploding in 2008.

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Sully18:

Bush et. al.and our"liberal"media will not be satisfied until Iraq is completely
destroyed;and the repetitious propaganda machine rolls on.

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mcboo:

Could the effective lock-down and manipulation of any information regarding casualties and violence levels have anything to do with these results as well?

There's been a remarkable lack of any media coverage on the war for quite some time now. Out of sight, out of mind certainly seems applicable here. I'd venture to guess that at the end of the day many people simply believe that "no news is good news". I'd beg to differ.

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I guess the implication is that the responsible thing for a government to do in a democratic system is stick with a wildly unpopular position until it becomes slightly less unpopular.

Is that the implication?

BTW, "is the war doing well?" is a different question than "do you support the war?" Just so that bit is clear. I can despise Britney Spears' music and still concede the" point that she sells records.

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Jon:

Oh my God! This is the first time in YEARS that the car has run for two whole weeks without breaking down! Woo-hoo!

Hey, the stock that I put $10,000 in, that is now worth $1000, is up to $1100 this year! If it continues at this rate, in 200 years I'll have made no money whatsoever!

In other words, there's the uptick, then there's the entire rest of the graph, which hasn't gone away. The public remains overwhelmingly soured on this war. A small uptick at the end doesn't make much difference.

Trend analysis that sees more meaning in the uptick then the vast majority of the trend may be, shall we say, missing something. Perhaps overly eager to find something newsworthy. I suggest that even if the uptick were real, permanent, and persistent, it's too small and too late to change the story.

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Jon:

Oh my God! This is the first time in years that the car has run for two whole weeks without breaking down! Woo-hoo! This time next year, it will be a reliable car!

Hey, the stock that I put $10,000 in, that is now worth $1000, is up to $1100 this year! If it continues at this rate, in 200 years it'll start making money for me!

In other words, there's the uptick, then there's the entire rest of the graph, which hasn't gone away. The public remains overwhelmingly soured on this war. A small uptick at the end doesn't make much difference.

Trend analysis that sees more meaning in the uptick then the vast majority of the trend may be, shall we say, missing something. Perhaps overly eager to find something newsworthy. I suggest that even if the uptick were real, permanent, and persistent, it's too small and too late to change the story.

It may be exciting to speculate on a change in trend. It's more realistic to infer that this represents at most a bottoming out. If it might somehow be a turning point, it's equally likely to be a real, but short term, improvement. Under no circumstances is it likely to reverse appreciable amounts of the change in opinion over the period in question.

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Jon:

Oops, didn't mean to post twice. Sorry!

OK, here's a bonus post with all original content :-) An alternative explanation for the data in question: the war has gotten so unpopular that it's hard for it to go any lower. The uptick may reflect that fact and no more.

In other words, it's hard for more Americans to be against it than the current three out of four. That's simply because three out of four is already a staggeringly high level of opposition for a nation's citizens to have regarding their nation's war.

However there's a pretty good argument the other way. The remaining one out of four who support the war would be severely eroded if they had to pay the cost of the war (instead of passing it along to their children and grandchildren), or if they had real risk of themselves or their children getting maimed or killed in the war (return of the draft), or if they saw realistic, recent images of the war (contrary to Bush's repeated assertion that we see those images on the TV every night, in fact TV news seldom presents realistic footage of Iraq; that might change). Thus the remaining one out of four who support the war are at risk of further eroding..

Interestingly, either way, the uptick is suspect. It's small, not widespread, and may represent nothing -- but if it means anything at all, it may perhaps mean how little a harvest of support is available, a few points at best. The idea that it's a trend in motion, a leading indicator, is greatly at odds with other fundamentals. The fundamental that the vast majority has made up their mind, has seen enough, would take a lot of convincing to change it again; the fundamental that the minority is more likely to erode than the majority; then the fundamental of reality.

The reality of what events in Iraq will likely be between now and November is unfortunately grim. People will die, cities will burn the central government will fiddle, ethnic and sectarian violence will flare, and our troops will not be able to do much about any of that. The recent reduction in casualties has been bought at a price: de facto ethnic cleansing, neighborhood by neighborhood, has been sanctioned by both Iraqw and America. This will not bring about peace; it will at best delay further violence for a while. When all parties likely conclude their next step is to take more of the better land for them and theirs, the fragile reduction in violence will likely disappear and that uptick with it.

I say these things not because I want them to happen but because they are likely to happen, and their likelihood bears on the future of that uptick. It also bears on the future of every man, woman, and child in Iraq, and that's the real tragedy. While we talk away about trends and polls of Americans, the reality is the lives and future of millions of Iraqis. It is their lives we are talking about.

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Rusty Austin:

Ever hear the term "dead cat bounce?" That's when you drop a dead cat off the roof, it will bounce but it's still dead...

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scuseme:

Dead cat bounce, nothing more.

15 troops died in the past weeks. This is progress?

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Mr. Forward:

The downward trend in support of the war reversed in July in spite of mostly negative news. Imagine what could happen if the new meme becomes "success and victory?"

Dead cats bounce, live cats scratch.

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Mike:

Gee, can you imagine how much higher the approval ratings would be if the media actually reported the truth about progress in Iraq?

Al Queda has been kicked out of Baghdad. You can read about it on page 19 of yesterday's New York Times. With our media, all bad news about Iraq goes on the front page. All of the good news goes in the back.

You see, the vast majority of our news outlets are desperately seeking American failure in Iraq. We won't let our liberal media defeat us.

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winemkr:

Wow. The investment in defeat by the vast majority of posters here is mind boggling. I think that most of you have grown up getting whatever you want. Including a team trophy for loosing a little league game.

Put your thumbs back in your mouths and let this country fulfill it's commitment to the Iraqi people. Better yet. enlist and help end the war sooner.

We bought it, we own it.

Semper Fi

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Mike in Maryland:

This is getting off topic, but not wanting to stay in Iraq forever is not defeat. And what do we owe the Iraqi people anyway? What makes them so much more deserving of US spending than Americans? And the media does report on positives in Iraq as well as negatives; the right-wing whiners apparently won't be satisfied unless the country is depicted as heaven on earth, built by George W. Bush.

Back to the topic of the polls, I don't think that the analysis here reflects any personal bias, though I do think it's possibly reading a little too much into a modest uptick. Really, support for the war probably couldn't have gone much lower, and even if opposition has slipped from, say, 63% to 58% (which it may not have, as per the CNN poll someone noted), that still doesn't sound like something that Republicans should run on in 2008 if they hope to win (and other issues important to the presidential race, like the economy and health care, don't currently favor their party either.)

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Mike in Maryland:

Also another point: 60% in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll want a troop drawdown, the highest figure yet (substantially more than when public evaluation of the war was somewhat more negative.) A modest increase in approval of how the war is progressing, even if real, does not mean higher support for staying there indefinitely, which is apparently what the president and his supporters want to think.

Speaking of the president, Pollster.com has his latest average at 33%--not something that should give cheer to the GOP's hopes of extending its White House lease. The average is lower than at almost any time from 2001-early 2007, and is only an improvement from a further slump that occurred in late spring/early summer.

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Jeremy Janson:

I love it how wonderfully unbiased we are.

But seriously folks, this guy is not saying that if the election was held today, the dems would not win in a landslide, and if you watch the GOP debates, you will notice the candidates trying to avoid the B-word, but what it does tell us is that there is an upward trend, that from the statistical standpoint, has gone on long enough and hard enough to create a threatening imponderable (Iraq) for the 2008 election. That's not to say that it will come to fruition, but if it does, it will be one cold winter for the Democrats.

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mark lantis:

I don't know if this war was the right or wrong thing to do. But, I do know a winning message for the GOP is "There has not been a terrorist attack on AMERICAN soil since 9/11, but there has been attacks on these anti-war countries." Clinton had his own pet military projects. Too bad punishing the people who bombed the USS Cole wasn't one of them. At least Clinton could have picked up UBL when the Saudis offered him to us.

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MarkJ:

To most of the people who have posted above:

Nice talking points. Too bad they're not true. For "reality-based" folks, you sure do have a problem recognizing positive news and trends even when they smack you in face like a Louisville Slugger.

Special note to "scuseme":

Dead cat bounce, nothing more.

15 troops died in the past weeks. This is progress?

Ummm, well, yeah, it is if you'd bother to pull your head out of your lower colon and look at our in-theater casualty stats since 2003.

Damn, we can only wonder what you'd have said after the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1,2,3 1863): 50,000+ Federal and Confederate KIA, WIA, MIA, POW. Several Federal and Confederate regiments took 70+% casualties. Or try the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945): 90,000 KIA, WIA, MIA, POW. In the space of only three days a single U.S. division, the 106th, took nearly 9,000 casualties including nearly 600 KIA. Compare that with what we've encountered in Iraq...if you add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

Then again, "scuseme" (and the rest of your Uranus-orbiting pals), I'm sure you're absolutely convinced that history began on the day you were born. Dare I pop your bubbles?

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Mike in Maryland:

Uhh, the Civil War was fought to preserve the nation. And World War II to protect world civilization. They weren't unneeded wars of choice fought on trumped-up evidence (remember the phantom WMD's?)

It must be nice to find good news in the fact that "only 60% now disapprove of the war! Wheee!"

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Lynn:

But, I do know a winning message for the GOP is "There has not been a terrorist attack on AMERICAN soil since 9/11, but there has been attacks on these anti-war countries."

Like Spain and England, members of the coalition of the willing? Yeah, good luck with that.

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mark lantis:

Lynn, why didn't you address what I actually said in my post? Being cynical about something I didn't even say isn't much of an argument. Instead of wasting your time posting dumb comments, maybe you should educate yourself to the differences between AMERICA and SPAIN and ENGLAND and the rest of the world. Before you post telling me how great the rest of the world is, save your effort - you're free to leave at anytime.

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