Surveys say...

Politics | Tricky poll questions skew what Americans believe about the war in Iraq

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

What do U.S. voters think of the situation in Iraq? Turns out, that's a loaded question, one with myriad angles and subtleties often overlooked by major polling agencies. A WORLD analysis of five recent national scientific surveys reveals that perceived public opinion can depend as much on the questions asked as the answers given.

In an Associated Press poll of 1,002 adults last month, 56 percent of respondents said they believe the war in Iraq is "a hopeless cause." Compare that to last month's survey of 800 adults from Public Opinion Strategies (POS), in which 57 percent of respondents "support finishing the job in Iraq, that is, keeping the troops there until the Iraqi government can maintain control and provide security for its people."

Such results appear to conflict: Surely no significant portion of the population believes both that the Iraq War is hopeless and that U.S. forces should stay to finish the job? That impossible overlap might provoke doubts about the capacity of limited sample groups to generate accurate statistics for the entire country.

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But a closer look at the data reveals an alternative explanation: The AP poll asked respondents to label the Iraq War either "a hopeless cause" or "a worthy cause." Such nonexclusive choices pose two entirely separate questions-one on ethics and the other pragmatics. Many respondents ethically opposed to the invasion of Iraq might well have selected "hopeless" simply to avoid selecting "worthy." These voters would therefore have unwittingly made statements about the likelihood of success in Iraq when they intended to comment only that they disapprove of the effort.

In fairness, the question included bail-out options, such as "both," "neither," or "unsure," but no more than 2 percent of respondents marked any of those categories, indicating that many mistakenly viewed "hopeless" and "worthy" as opposites.

Other questions within the AP poll that addressed matters of ethics and pragmatics individually generated sharp distinctions. While 61 percent of respondents called the Iraq War a mistake, 60 percent opposed a congressional measure to cut off funding for President George Bush's troop surge-numbers much more closely aligned with the POS results.

Other polls similarly indicate that Americans are eager to express dissatisfaction about current and past war efforts but, nonetheless, understand the importance of future success and believe it possible. That dichotomy of public sentiment allows media members from both sides of the political spectrum to cite cherry-picked poll results for their respective purposes of spinning positive or negative pictures of the country's collective view on Iraq.

For example, a CBS News poll of 1,142 adults last month found that 68 percent disapprove of how President Bush has handled the situation in Iraq-a disapproval rating confirmed throughout most polls. Left-leaning websites and publications regularly cite such figures as evidence that Americans are fed up with the Republican approach. But a USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,006 adults conducted during the same week produced a comparable 63 percent disapproval rating on Iraq for congressional Democrats. That similarity suggests an overall disgust with the difficulties of the war rather than any particular distaste for the plans of one party over the other.

Despite such high disapproval ratings, forward-looking questions tend to draw out more positive outlooks. Half of all respondents in the CBS poll believe that the United States is likely to succeed in Iraq. Only 47 percent consider success unlikely. In the POS survey, 56 percent of voters agree that Americans should stand behind the president even if they disagree with his policies, and 57 percent underscore the importance of efforts in Iraq as "a key part of the global war on terrorism."

But clever phrasing can reverse such positive results. A Pew survey of 1,509 adults last month asked the following: "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?" Most Americans would probably deliver an emphatic yes to both supposed alternatives, arguing they are one and the same. But the outcome of this loaded question had 53 percent choosing to cut and run-a strategy for which more straightforward polls show only marginal minority support.


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