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December 21, 2005

Spinning in a widening gyre of polls
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Any progressive who remembers the fights of the 1990s over whether there was or could ever be public support for stopping genocide in Rwanda, or Bosnia, or elsewhere should have been watching President Bush's recent jag of Iraq speech-making with interest.  Is it, in fact, possible to talk Americans into supporting a conflict -- especially one they have grown tired of and one that, unlike Iraq in 2003 with its alleged WMD, cannot be painted as an immediate threat?

Last month in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller said no.  Duke's Peter Feaver famously said yes, and got hired on at the White House to make it so.  Last week the first round of polling came in.  What did the people say?

1.  Bush wasn't hurt.  The President's personal numbers rose gratifyingly, and issue-specific numbers stopped their declines in most areas.  It's early, of course, but interesting to note that  Bush hasn't suffered for putting his prestige on the line to make the case -- whatever one thinks of the case itself.

2.  The bleeding stopped.  It looks to me as if he succeeded in rallying his base back to him, but not so much in persuading any of the "persuadable middle."  In several areas all of the shift came from undecideds.  Interesting to consider whether just the fact of his taking a stand on something, rather than the specific stand he took, is what moved the needle for him.  Looking resolute and Commander-in-Chief-esque and all that.

3.  Bottom line on Iraq:  the people aren't buying.  This is really striking:  The number of people who think the President has a plan for Iraq fell between November 30 and December 9-11, before rising again in the poll taken just after the feel-good election day.  The percentage of people who think the Iraqi military and police will be able to secure the country without the US in the next few years actually declined.  (Not sure whether that's what the White House wanted, or not.)  The percentage of people saying our troop presence should decline also rose.

So, an interesting bottom line for students of the public and international relations:  President Bush was able to buoy the nation's opinion of him, and buy himself some more credit to spend on the war, if he so chooses; he produced a little increase in optimism on whether the war can and will be won; but even giving speech after speech on the specific topics, he wasn't able to change people's minds much about the specifics of what is happening on the ground. 

Of course, much of the coverage of the speeches was, as I have groused before, about the fighting inside the Beltway and not about what is happening on the ground.  But now I'm starting to sound almost sympathetic.   


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I'm not sure how to interpret these new poll results. I would say that these past speeches that Bush made on Iraq, helped him solidify his base among the hard-lined conservatives and the religious right-wingnuts--not that these two groups would ever leave Bush and choose a Democratic or liberal candidate. But they may have been unhappy enough with the situation in Iraq to register their own displeasure at the president's job ratings.

I'd especially be interested in watching the independent and moderate responses in future polls. If Bush is ever going to increase his numbers, it is going to have to come from these two groups. What is more, how are the independent and moderate voters going to respond to Bush's job approval ratings, now that it has been revealed that the president has authorized secret NSA wiretaps against Americans on domestic soil? How will these voters respond when the Scooter Libby / Valerie Plame outing trial begins in the next couple of months? Or the Tom DeLay trial? Or the possible plea bargain that lobbyist Jack Abramoff is negotiating with the feds, and what information will Jack spill against the Republicans? All of these variables can spell bad news for the Republicans, and the Bush job approval ratings--during a midterm election year.

Next year may just get VERY interesting.

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