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The Growth of Antiwar Sentiment

Antiwar sentiment is growing and deepening among the public, as violence in Iraq continues unabated and progress in ending the conflict becomes ever more difficult to perceive. A recent report by Gallup usefully summarize how public opinion in this area is evolving.

The report, “Americans Divide Into Four Groups on Iraq War”, partitions the public by combining the answers to two questions: (1) whether or not they think US made a “mistake in sending troops to Iraq”; and (2) whether the US should set a timetable for withdrawing its troops, and stick to it regardless of what is happening in Iraq.

Based on data from their June 24-26 poll, when both of these questions were asked, the public divides as follows. The largest group (36 percent) think both that the war was a mistake and that the US should set and stick to a timetable for withdrawing troops. Then, 14 percent believe the war was a mistake but think the US should keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation stabilizes, rather than set a timetable. An identical proportion believe the war was not a mistake, but believe we now should set a timetable to leave. Finally, 30 percent believe both that the war was not a mistake and that the US should not set a timetable for troop withdrawal. (Note that among independents, the solid antiwar group has now grown to 39 percent, with just 23 percent being solidly prowar.)

That the solid antiwar group is now the largest group is significant. And it will inevitably grow larger if present trends continue--that is, if sentiment that the Iraq war was a mistake continues to strengthen and public appetite for some kind of withdrawal timetable continues to escalate. Such trends will pull more and more people out of the two mixed groups into the unambiguously antiwar camp. Once that camp starts approaching half the population, the administration's position will become tenuous indeed.

On the other hand, the existence of the two mixed groups means Democrats cannot assume most of the public is currently antiwar in, say, the manner of the typical Democratic activist (the war was a colossal blunder and we need to get out of Iraq as soon as possible). That will take some time and, meanwhile, Democrats need to be sensitive to the conflicting views shared by a substantial part of public.

Caution is particularly advisable on the issue of withdrawing US troops and how fast this should be done. Chris Bowers of MyDD has helpfully rounded up the latest polling results on the withdrawal issue, so that the large variations in public sentiment for withdrawal, depending on how withdrawal is described, can be plainly seen:

Gallup Poll. June 29-30, 2005. N=883 adults nationwide. MoE ± 4. "If you had to choose, which do you think is better? For the U.S. to keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation there gets better, even if that takes many years. OR, To set a time-table for removing troops from Iraq and to stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time." Options rotated

No timetable 48
Stick to timetable 49

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. June 23-26, 2005. N=1,004 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults). Fieldwork by TNS
"Do you think the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties; or do you think the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?" Options rotated

Stay 58
Withdraw 41

Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs. June 20-22, 2005. N=1,000 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.1.
"Should the United States keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or should the United States bring its troops home from Iraq immediately?"

Stay in Iraq 59
Bring Home 37

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. June 8-12, 2005. N=1,464 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
"Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?"

Keep Troops 50
Bring Home 46

The Harris Poll. June 7-12, 2005. N=1,015 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
"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?"

Wait for Stable Govt 33
Bring Home in Next Year 63

The first question is the Gallup question already discussed, where a timetable for removing troops is counterposed to keeping a large numbers of troops in Iraq until things "get better". That meets with a split response, as does the Pew question which counterposes bringing troops home "as soon as possible" to keeping troops in Iraq until the situation stabilizes. No clear majority either way on these questions.

But when immediate withdrawal is thrown into the equation, as in the Ipsos-AP question, a strong majority forms against that option and for keeping trooping in Iraq. On the other hand, when a specific time period for withdrawal is mentioned (a year) and withdrawal is of "most", rather than all troops, a strong majority forms in favor of withdrawal and against indefinite maintenance of a large US troop presence.

This suggests Democrats will do best with an approach that steers away from immediate withdrawal, but highlights a specific timeline for partial, but not complete, withdrawal. Such an approach should be acceptable to the solid antiwar group discussed above, as well as providing a relatively unthreatening option for those in the mixed groups who are moving toward solid opposition to the war, but still harbor conflicting sentiments about it.