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Strategy Notes:
John Belisarius

What the Public Really Thinks About Iraq - And the Challenge Facing Kerry

Now that the Kerry campaign has clearly focused on Iraq as the central issue in the 2004 presidential race, public attitudes on the subject become critically important. Kerry faces a difficult challenge because he must win support from voters who hold sharply divergent views.

There are four basic questions whose answers, taken together, provide a reasonably clear outline of the public’s general view of Iraq as a political issue.

1. Was decision to invade right or wrong?
2. Has it helped or hurt the war on terrorism
3. Should the US stay until a stable government is established or bring the troops home within a short time.
4. How well is Bush handling the situation?

While there are other important questions, these four provide a solid basic framework or outline of the key public attitudes. They have the additional value of having been asked a sufficient number of times in recent weeks to provide survey data that reflects a variety of question wordings and polling methodologies.

The central and most dramatic fact about current public opinion on Iraq is that, even after the Republican convention, public support for the Bush administration’s approach on all four of the key questions above has still not returned to the levels of last January.

According to a Sept 17th Pew Research Center survey, last January:

65% of the general public thought that launching the war in Iraq was the “right decision”. Only 30% disagreed.

55% believed that the war in Iraq “helped the war on terrorism”. Only 32% thought it had hurt it.

63% felt America should “keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized” while 32% wanted the U.S to “bring the troops home as soon as possible”.

59% approved of the way Bush was handling the situation in Iraq, in contrast to only 37% who disapproved.

In short, support for Bush and his policies hovered in the 55-65% range while contrary views did not rise above the low and mid 30’s. In the following 4-5 months, however, all of these positive numbers for the Bush administration declined dramatically under the impact of the startling military reverses in Faluja and other major cities along with the appearance of major reports critical of the Bush Administration and the revelations regarding the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

As a result, by June the Pew data showed that the percentage believing the war was the right decision had fallen by 10% (from 65% to 55%), the percent who felt the Iraq operation helped the war on terrorism had fallen by 12% (from 55% to 43%) and the percentage wishing to keep troops in Iraq fell 12% as well (from 63% to 51%).

(Conversely, those who felt the invasion had been the wrong decision increased by 8%, those who felt it hurt the war on terrorism rose by 12% and those who wanted to bring the troops home more rapidly also increased by 12% )

Finally, the percentage approving Bush’s handling of Iraq fell a remarkable 17% (from 59% to 42%) while those who disapproved rose 14% (from 37% to 51%).

This dramatic decline in the support for Bush and his policies in Iraq played a substantial role in creating the overall lead in the polls Kerry assumed during the spring of 2004. But this lead was clearly tenuous because it was substantially rooted in a perception that the Bush administration had lost control of events and literally did not know what it was doing. It was therefore reasonable to expect that, if the administration could prevent further military reverses for several months and avoid further scandals or damaging revelations, these depressed levels of support would gradually reverse themselves and begin rising back toward their previous levels.

In fact, however, the recovery Bush enjoyed was extremely limited. By August, the percentage saying that the U.S. made the “right decision” actually fell another two points to 53% and remained at that level even after the Republican convention. The percentage saying that the incursion had helped the war on terrorism only rose 3% from June to September (from 43% to 46%) and the percentage wishing to keep the troops in Iraq until stability was achieved also rose only by 3% from June to September (from 51% to 54%).

Those approving Bush’s handling of the situation rose from 42% to 47%. Those disapproving declined from 51% to 45%.

In short, while the downward slide in support for the war and Bush’s handling of it that began in April slowed and slightly reversed during the summer, the reversal was actually rather modest and, even after the Republican convention, support was still substantially below the level it had been the winter before. Support for the view that the war was the “Right decision” was 12% below the level of January, support for the view that it had helped the war on terrorism was down 9%, support for keeping the troops in Iraq was down 9% and Bush’s approval rating was 12% below its January level.

It is important to keep this larger pattern in mind when looking more closely at the specific questions. There are important differences in the way Americans feel about the four distinct issues, but in all these cases, the key fact is that Bush and his policies in Iraq have still not returned to their former level of popularity.

In examining the first of the four questions in more detail, the most striking thing that emerges from a comparison of the major polls taken during August and September are the clear differences that appear depending on the wording of the question. Polls which ask whether the U.S. “did the right thing”, “made the right decision”, or “made a mistake” tend to show a clear majority affirming that the U.S. was indeed “right”

When the wording shifts to whether it was “worth going to war”, however, polls tend to show the respondents being much closer to evenly divided. And when the question asked is if the war was “worth the number of U.S. casualties and financial cost” or “worth the cost in lives and dollars”, respondents reply that it was not by margins of 6-9%.

Democracy Corps, whose polls often go beyond traditional polling methods to incorporate techniques derived from market research and the social sciences, in mid- September asked respondents to choose between a full-paragraph statement about Iraq that noted the 200 billion dollar cost, the 1,000 dead and the loss of control over a substantial portion of the country and two “anti-Kerry” statements challenging either Kerry’s supposed “waffling” on Iraq or his willingness to leave Saddam Hussein in power – the two main counterarguments offered by the Bush administration. In both cases from 7% to 13% more of the respondents said that they agreed with the first, “the war is not worth it” statement rather then either of the two anti-Kerry propositions.

This clearly suggests the critical importance of the language that is used during the coming weeks. Many Americans still want to consider the war as “right” even as they conclude that it is increasingly not worth the cost in lives lost and resources wasted.

Turning to the second question – whether the invasion of Iraq has helped or hurt the war on terrorism, the data again shows the degree to which opinion can be shaped by the language that is used. The most striking example can be found in two questions asked in an August 10-15 Harris poll.

When asked if the invasion of Iraq has “strengthened or weakened the war on terrorism” 50% chose the first option while only 40% chose the second. But when the same survey also asked if the invasion “helped to protect the United States from another terrorist attack, 54% said it had not, in contrast to only 43% who thought that it had. From this, it appears that more general, “macho” phraseology (“strengthened” rather then “weakened”) evokes a more pro-administration response, while more practical questions about actually reducing risk produce a less belligerent set of responses.

This is reinforced by an August 20 survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) which revealed even more clearly that, when asked relatively specific and practical questions about terrorism, the American people do not think the war has actually made them more secure. One question, for example, asked if a better use of US resources would have been a) to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein or b) to “use those same resources instead for pursuing al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan”. In this comparison, 52% chose the latter option while only 39% chose the former. In the same survey 49% said “US involvement in Iraq is creating more terrorists who are planning to attack the US” while only 25% thought the war in Iraq was eliminating such terrorists.

The third issue – how long to keep troops in Iraq – shows a rather different pattern from the first two questions. Regardless of question wording almost all surveys during August and September showed majorities of between 54 and 58% clearly in favor of keeping troops in the country until some form of stability is achieved. Moreover, unlike the other questions, this majority sentiment never fell below 50% during the spring of 2004 in most surveys or ever declined to near-parity with any “bring the troops home” alternative.

This suggests that the resistance to withdrawing U.S. troops until some form of stability is achieved is a more stable and deeply rooted opinion then some of the others. It likely reflects a common American attitude that, having committed the soldiers to combat, they should remain until “the job is done”. A similar kind of sentiment was evident during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and also during France’s colonial occupation of Algeria and led in both cases to a “casualty paradox”. Increasing numbers of dead and wounded, rather then stimulating a desire and demand for withdrawal, led to a growing intransigence and insistence on the application of additional military force to “finish the job”.

There are a variety of conclusions that can be drawn from this data, but the most important is that Kerry cannot win the election if he only garners the support of those who think the Iraq war was “wrong”, who believe it has made us more vulnerable to terrorism and who feel that the troops should be brought back home even in the absence of a stable government.

On the contrary, to build a winning coalition Kerry also has to reach out to a substantial number of the people who, the data show, think the war is, in some meaningful sense, “right”, who believe (or at any rate would like to believe) that our attack on Iraq represented in some undefined way a retaliatory strike against a global enemy called terrorism and who believe that we should stay in Iraq until we “finish the job”

This demands an extremely difficult balancing act. Mobilizing the first group demands an aggressive style of campaigning, one that embodies and expresses many Democrats deep frustration and passionate disagreement with Bush’s actions in Iraq. At the same time, attracting a significant segment of the second group requires Kerry to present himself as more mature, thoughtful and experienced leader who will do a better job of putting together a long-range, international plan for restoring Iraq to stability.

It will be extremely difficult to simultaneously satisfy both these audiences but the degree to which Kerry succeeds in doing so will substantially determine the outcome, not only of the coming debates, but of the 2004 election.

Comments

I think the case overstated insofar as those who think the war "wrong" will never vote for Bush and very few vote for Nader.

Unless the impression takes hold that this race is not Kerry's to win, turnout will be very high and that means those who opposed the war as wrong will be there

Thus the analysis is skewed..Kerry need only appeal to those who thought the war "right"..stubborn though that attitude may be, Kerry and Edwards are both ideally positioned to make the case to the leaners

The base is in the bag.

Kerry's new ad "Right Track" nails the tone and the content on the "right war" crowd.

I think the deeper political effect of the Iraq issue lies along different directions, namely the character issue of Bush's credibility.

This past week or so, the nightly news in almost all cases has been composed thus:

1. Vivid pictures of terrible chaos in Iraq.

2. Bush asserting that things are turning around in Iraq, and only the pessimists can't see the bright shining future.

3. Kerry lambasting Bush for not leveling with the American people about Iraq.

Taken together, these three stories might as well be a Kerry advertisement.

And I don't see how it's going to change. Iraq is not going to improve in 6 weeks. Bush can NEVER admit things are going to hell in handbasket. And Kerry will NOT stop pointing out that Bush is just making stuff up.

These are a crucial strategy points. To win the support of those independents who believe we must stay in Iraq until there is a stable situation, I guess Kerry is going to have to directly start arging that a stable Iraq is not a possible outcome if President Bush is re-elected, for one reason: most people believe that real help from the international community is required to stabilize Iraq, and that help simply will not be forthcoming in any form if Bush is returned to the white house. Why? Because world public opinion is decisively opposed to President Bush, especially among our closest allies, the western european democracies. In countries like Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Canada and even Britain, polls indicate that Bush and his policies are literally supported by less than 15% of the citizens. These are real representative democracies, responsive to their voters, with no countermajoritarian, anti-democratic institutions like our Senate or electoral college. The leaders of these democracies tend ultimately to reflect the views of their citizens, and those citizens are simply not going to consent to help President Bush, ever. Even Blair, who is aware that the situation in Iraq is going south, is pulling troops out! Further, european and commonwealth disgust with this country is going to become manifestly greater if our voters, given existing world opinion and Bush's terrible record, return him to office. If you think we are viewed badly in world opinion now, wait until after a second Bush win! With no chance of help from the rest of the world, what does a re-elected Bush do? Either he commences a long, drawn out, bloody "crack-down" against the insurgents in Iraq, further alienating the Iraqi population against us and making certain that whatever elected regime that comes into being will be strongly anti-american, or he ignominiously withdraws from the Iraq, letting it fend for itself, a strategic defeat with consequences which are beyond prediction, possibly the greatest strategic defeat in the history of our country. Moral of the story: America's only hope of averting this inconceivable strategic defeat is by seizing the CHANCE that a NEW president can cobble together a plan for Iraq that our traditional democratic allies can support .

Interesting article here, but suggests that
Kerry faces a daunting challenge in the first
debate and the next few weeks - hope he meets it.

Ref: What the Public Really Thinks About Iraq - And the Challenge Facing Kerry.

The best post I have read on the subject, it should be required reading for all Democrats who are concerned with stopping Bush from being reapointed. While I am at it, people should send it off to any Nader friends they know, might help clear the fog.

Oneother thing that Belasarius neglected to mention...the crucial place of the difficult-to-quantify yet crucial impact of pressure and momentum on the attack...

This should fit the Right War, Wrong Track attack perfectly.

They're beginning to crack

1.9/23:
Don Rumsfeld - elections in "three-quarters or four-fifths of" Iraq might be good enough.


9/24:

2. Richard Armitage "no plans for partial elections"

3. Rumsfeld: U.S. Troops Can Leave Before Iraq Peaceful (Reuters)

The October surprise will be if Ole Wrong Track manages to walk and chew gum at the same time

"The third issue – how long to keep troops in Iraq – shows a rather different pattern from the first two questions. Regardless of question wording almost all surveys during August and September showed majorities of between 54 and 58% clearly in favor of keeping troops in the country until some form of stability is achieved. Moreover, unlike the other questions, this majority sentiment never fell below 50% during the spring of 2004 in most surveys or ever declined to near-parity with any “bring the troops home” alternative.

This suggests that the resistance to withdrawing U.S. troops until some form of stability is achieved is a more stable and deeply rooted opinion then some of the others. It likely reflects a common American attitude that, having committed the soldiers to combat, they should remain until “the job is done”. A similar kind of sentiment was evident during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and also during France’s colonial occupation of Algeria and led in both cases to a “casualty paradox”. Increasing numbers of dead and wounded, rather then stimulating a desire and demand for withdrawal, led to a growing intransigence and insistence on the application of additional military force to “finish the job”."

I think you are right about this, but only in the context of the election. During the entire 18 months of both the war and the campaign, Democrats have hit hard on the other three points. However, no one with high visibility, not even Dennis Kucinich, argued in favor of bringing the troops home before "stability" is estalished in Iraq. This is, I believe, the main reason why that number has always remained over 50%. No one is actively arguing in favor of the opposing view. However, I think it remains remarkable that 40% of the country contiues to hold it even though literally every major news outlet and political figure is consistently arguing against it.

It is too late in this election for Kerry to suddenly take up that mantle now. However, once the election is over, if some prominent figures do finally start making the case for early wtihdrawal, I believe there will be a quick, dramatic and permanent change in polling numbers on that question.

The crucial point is the last:

How well is Bush handling the war. And that is where Kerry should focus his attention. Because that's the real question people have: which of the two will do a better job.

And Kerry can argue that in many ways.

But I would also argue strenously that public opinion doesn't just sit there. When the Democrats were all pounding Bush, his ratings sank. When the pounding stopped they started up again. In each one of these questions the opposition party did NOT challenge the basic facts. So most Americans formed their opinions based on false assumptions, such as ElQueda and Saddam being allies, etc.

So, I'd say that Kerry can charge ahead and change minds - Forcing the debate on the facts has a huge upside for him.

Ruy interesting and encouraging stats in Iraq issue for Kerry. Yes, he must attract swing Republican voters in battleground states to win.

I agree new ad "Right Track" is a nice step.

IMO, Kerry is now winning the Iraq issue which began last Mon. with his superb speech at NYU. Kerry is now playing offense and yeserday destroyed Bush/Allawi at their Rose Garden "circle jerk" which shows Bush and Allawi have no credibilty and even more Americans ( like swing Republicans ) are believing this.

So now just winning the terror issue remains.

The irony is that the Republicans record on fighting terror has been a miserable failure due to their extreme right-wing ideology and heavy-handed policies that have made America and the world less safe, not more.

The 2001-2004 Bush/Cheney record provides no tangible support for why the Republicans are well equipped to fight transnational terrorism. On the contrary, that record, both before 9/11 and after, reveals an ideologically driven administration that has consistently made disastrously wrong decisions about how to fight terrorism.

As a result the world today is more unstable and less safe.

If K/E can nail the terror issue like they just did on Iraq then they will win the election going away !

Who has a better plan for winning the war on terror?

CNN.com poll

President George Bush
48%
21131 votes

Sen. John Kerry
52%
22973 votes

Total: 44104 votes

The war on terror was supposed to be Bush's #1 issue and strength ;)

Kerry is looking better and better for a win on Nov 2.

> Kerry is going to have to directly start
> arging that a stable Iraq is not a possible
> outcome if President Bush is re-elected,
> for one reason: most people believe that
> real help from the international community
> is required to stabilize Iraq, and that help
> simply will not be forthcoming in any form if
> Bush is returned to the white house. Why?
> Because world public opinion is decisively
> opposed to President Bush,

Any information on polls which frame the question exactly that way? What are the numbers (a) on the coasts (b) away from the coasts?

Anecdotally, my neighbors out here in middle America would react very strongly against any suggestion that foreigners should influence the choice of President.

Anecdotes aren't data of course so I am curious if there are any polls on this topic.

Cranky

Frankly..you get the Occam's Razor Award for this

"I think the deeper political effect of the Iraq issue lies along different directions, namely the character issue of Bush's credibility"

That plus their incompetence equal a theme off of which Kerry can play just about any issue you name - foreign, domestic, social wedge or even Martian (who could forget that SOTU!)


PLUS it provides the extra added macho thing of "leadership" that everyone seems so concerned with


I think Kerry's on to this ...at last

I'm sorry, Cranky, but I don't understand your question. As to whether most Americans believe that we need real help from the international community to help stabilize Iraq, even the Bush administration must think Americans believe that, or we wouldn't endlessly hear about the supposed size of our "Coalition" in Iraq, and how we are working so closely with our allies. World public opinion data about support for President Bush, country by country, can be viewed in painful detail at the Program on International Policy Attitudes website, www.pipa.org among others. As a middle american, allow me to suggest that middle america can't have it both ways: they can't desire greater international participation in Iraq, but then be incensed at the reason such participation is not forthcoming.

I agree in general with the post, but I think you left out a critical factor that influences the public's support of the war, which I suspect the Kerry campaign has picked up on and explains some of Kerry's recent rhetoric. (Samuel Knight, this ties into what you said).

In short, there is a huge gap between the assumptions of people who support the war and those who are against it. The PIPA poll has an excellent description of this, but here is the most important part from their report:

"Such beliefs are highly correlated with support for the decision to go to war with Iraq. Among those who believed that Iraq had WMD 81% thought going to war was the right decision, and among those who thought it had a major WMD program 49% believed it was the right decision. Among those who thought that Iraq only had some WMD-related activities only 21% thought war was the right decision, and for those who thought there was no such activity just 8% thought it was the right decision.

"Likewise, among those who thought Iraq was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, 73% thought going to war was the right decision, and among those who thought Iraq was giving al Qaeda substantial support 69% thought this was the right decision. But among those who thought there were only a few contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, 21% thought war was the right decision; and among those who thought there was no relationship at all, only 16% saw war as the right decision."

If you notice, Kerry has recently been repeating the facts that Iraq had no WMDs and had no significant ties with al Qaeda in his speeches. I believe he is going this to weaken people's support for Bush's decision to go to war.

(Please delete if this is inappropriate, but I go into more detail in this post, with examples from a Kerry speech, at http://www.1001words.com/2004/09/this-started-off-has-six-line-post.htm )

>> "I think the deeper political effect of the Iraq
>> issue lies along different directions, namely the
>> character issue of Bush's credibility"

> That plus their incompetence equal a theme off of
> which Kerry can play just about any issue you
> name


Right! Kerry (and Dems in general) should steer clear of all the sleazy, irrelevant stuff about "Shrub's" National Guard records from 30 years ago and relentlessly focus on "the competence thing." I suspect a solid majority of independent voters actually feel the current President is a honorable, likeable "values" person. No matter how much you and I disagree with that assessment, there is little Kerry can do about "Shrub's" personal approval ratings -- except changing the subject to the issue of competence! As you correctly point out, it is really the weak spot of this Administration. Heck, even many Republicans privately suspect "Shrub" just might have reached the incompetence level when he was promoted from his previous job in Austin to the White House. They love the guy as a person, but many of them (such as NRO editor Jonah Goldberg) can easily list dozens of Iraq-related policies that have backfired and the domestic policies (tax cuts aside, plus some red meat for the social conservative base) are not much better. Libertarian-leaning small government conservatives seem particularly appalled by it all.
---
The message should not be "Bush lied!" It should be that he simply is not doing a competent job in Iraq, on the economy or just about any subject you can mention. Just keep pointing out the facts, ever and ever again. Kerry of course will have to provide alternatives, but a good point to start would be to showcase future members of _his_ administration that could do a better job than Rummy, Wolfie, Scooter, Perle and the other incompetent ideologues currently running the show.


> PLUS it provides the extra added macho thing of
> "leadership" that everyone seems so concerned
> with


As an aside, I think Kerry has not played the Vietnam card as well as he could have. The hyped-up personal stuff about his courage, leadership abilities etc. backfired a bit once the Swift Boat Veterans smear campaign started. It would have been better to use the Vietnam war hero element in a more subdued way, perhaps humbly stressing the fact Kerry fought while the neocons all had "other priorities" at the time. Again, let's focus on experience and competence -- issues such as bravery and honesty are much easier for the GOP smear machine to distort.


MARCU$

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TAXWISDOM.ORG

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Email Campaign Manager

linette@taxwisdom.org

Polls in Germany, France and other European countries scream that those people want a Kerry presidency. If their governments show support for Kerry, they will be met with the charge of meddling in the internal affairs of the U. S.

Bush's Iraq adventure destabilizes the Middle East and because of the weakening of U.S. military strength and our moral power, the U. S. cannot effectively deal with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear problems. This begs the conclusion that a Kerry presidency will be of great benefit to Europe.

Anyone have any ideas about how to get the Europena governments to openly tell the truth and indicate that a Kerry win will be met with assistance in stabilizing Iraq. Their citizens have spoken in these polls.