Poll Analysis: Americans Rally Behind Bush and the War

of the Times Poll

American backing of the country’s military action against Iraq is running high, according to the latest Los Angeles Times poll. Over a recent two-day period (April 2–3) during which American POW Jessica Lynch was rescued by U.S. Marines and the U.S. made significant advances into Baghdad, more than three out of four Americans said they support the war. The survey found that traditional war-time patriotism has given a positive spin to Americans’ outlook on everything from the direction of the country, to safety from terrorism at home and abroad.

Public support for the war is widespread and strong, crossing political and ideological boundaries. More than three-fourths nationwide, including more than seven out of 10 self-described Democrats and independents said they support the U.S. military action in Iraq. Just under half of each of those groups said they support the action strongly. Republicans in particular are staunch supporters of the war—95% indicated support, and 84% support it strongly. Only one in five nationwide said they oppose the war, including 27% each of Democrats and independents, and 4% of Republicans.

The war has prompted a rise in President Bush’s approval rating, as well. The percentage of those who approve of the job he’s doing leapt twelve points in two months—from 56% in a Times poll taken in February to 68% in this survey—reversing a decline in the president’s rating which began last fall. Abrupt spikes in the job approval rating of the commander in chief during times of war are not unusual. For example, in 1991 at the beginning of the military action taken by the U.S. to rebuff Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, 85% of Americans approved of the job done by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president’s father. The first President Bush saw his job approval slide to below 50% in the months that followed that action, and he did not win reelection in 1992.

There is no telling what the future will bring for the current President Bush, of course, but for now he has the country squarely behind him. More than three in four said they trust Bush and his advisors to make the right decisions about Iraq and 56% said that the president had done an excellent or good job explaining the rationale for war. In fact, supporters of military action in this survey echo Bush administration contentions when citing their reasoning: The need to disarm Saddam Hussein (23%, including 12% of Democrats, 26% of independents, and 32% of Republicans), to liberate the Iraqi people (15%), and to remove the threat of an Iraqi attack on America (14%). One in five Republicans said that war was justified because Hussein is a tyrant and a human rights abuser, and 12% of Democrats said that the U.S. needed to finish what it started in the 1991 Gulf War.

Even though many Americans said that disarming Hussein is a priority, and three-fourths said they are at least somewhat confident that the U.S. will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, more than four in five of those who support the war said they would still support it if no such weapons are found. In fact, survey responses indicated that Americans generally feel this action in Iraq is the right thing to do.

• Seven in 10 said the U.S. has the “moral authority” to attack Iraq.

• Two-thirds felt that the U.S. gave diplomacy enough time before taking action and three-fourths said that weapons inspectors had run their course.

• Half said they believe the Iraqi people welcome the presence of U.S. troops in their country. Nearly three in 10 thought the Iraqis would not welcome the U.S. because they were afraid of Saddam Hussein, while only 12% believe the Iraqis see the U.S. as an invading force.

• Two-thirds said that the military is doing the right thing in trying not to bomb areas where Iraqi civilians are being used as human shields.

• More than three in five said they think the world will be a safer place as a result of the U.S. action.

• More than twice as many said that the U.S. military action is likely to stabilize (52%) than said destabilize (21%) the Middle East.

• As many think the threat of terrorism at home and abroad will decrease (38%) as think it will increase (39%) as a result of U.S. military action in Iraq.

Americans said they will continue to back the military action in Iraq even if it continues for some time, and seem resigned to the fact that there will be casualties of war. Even though about three-fifths expect the war to be over in less than six months, a 46% plurality said they would still support the war even if it went on longer than a year, and another 28% would support it if it lasts for up to a year. More than half of supporters (52%) said they would still support the war even if more than 1000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action. Fifty-six percent of Americans said that the war is going about as they expected it to go, compared to just over a quarter who said it is going better than they expected, and just under one-fifth who said it is going worse than they expected.

Only about one in five Americans said that they believe the contention that the Bush administration knowingly underestimated the difficulty of the war in Iraq in order to rally support for taking action. One third said that the administration had honestly underestimated the difficulty. Two-fifths said that the Bush administration’s assessment of the difficulty of the war had been accurate.

The survey found that this time around, Americans won’t be satisfied unless Hussein is deposed. Only 11% said they would consider the war a success if Hussein was still in power, even if his weapons of mass destruction had been eliminated. Fewer than two in five would consider consigning Hussein to exile from Iraq as a successful outcome. On the other hand, 85% would consider the war a success if Hussein is captured or killed. In fact, most Americans have now completely accepted that Hussein has direct ties to terrorism—nearly four-fifths said they believe the Bush administration contention that Iraq has ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and three-fifths believe that Hussein is at least somewhat responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York and DC on September 11th, 2001, a charge the Bush administration has not made.

Looking ahead, there is a distinct sense that the United States should continue to play a central role in the Middle East. Only 17% of Americans think the U.S. should not send peacekeeping forces to Iraq at all and more than two in five said that we should commit those forces for as long as they are needed. Americans barely split 42% to 46% against taking military action against Syria, should that country continue to send military supplies to Iraq. There is even more support (50%) for taking action against Iran if it continues to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Even though these figures indicate a rather surprising level of support for further U.S. military action in the region, there are signs that support for U.S. involvement has its limits. Just under three in ten said they’d prefer that the U.S. take the lead in the reconstruction effort in Iraq, while 50% said the U.N. should take the lead. Seven percent thought it should be a joint effort and 7% said that some other country should be in charge.

While the rally-round-the-flag effect extends even to the direction of the country and the state of the economy, most Americans said that the country cannot afford even the Senate’s slashed-in-half version of Bush’s tax cut plan. While Bush’s job rating on handling the economy rose from 45% last February to 55% today and half said the economy is doing well (up from 35% last February,) two-fifths predict the war will have a negative impact on the economy, and three-fifths said the country cannot afford the $350 billion dollar tax cut plan passed by the Senate last month. Only 12% would back passing the tax cut plan if it meant that Social Security funds would be used to pay for other government programs.

There is an interesting difference between the responses of males and females when it comes to support for the war. Males are sixteen points more likely to approve of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq than are females, 11 points more likely to trust Bush to make the right decision about the conflict, and 11 points more likely to support the war. Females are more likely to say they would have liked to see U.N. weapons inspectors given more time to work before the attacks began, and they are half as likely to think that war will have a good effect on the economy. Females are much more likely—by 68% to 51%—to hold Saddam Hussein responsible for the attacks on this country on September 11th, 2001. Many more males (60% compared with 45%) than females think that the U.S. military action will stabilize the Middle East, and 46% of females compared to 32% of males think the threat of terrorism against Americans at home and abroad will be increased. Finally, females are slightly more likely than males to think the U.S. should act against Syria and Iran if those countries continue to act in a way that the U.S. finds threatening.

Media coverage of the war

Before the war, an early February Los Angeles Times poll revealed that nearly half of the American public was following the news about an impending war with Iraq very closely and 44% were following it somewhat closely. In the latest Times poll, more Americans are following the war news very closely. The close monitoring of the news has jumped dramatically to almost two-thirds of Americans following the news very closely and another three in 10 who said they are watching the news somewhat closely (for a combined 95% who are following the war coverage very or somewhat closely). Women are not following the news about the war as extensively as men (58% vs. 73%, respectively).

Not surprisingly, cable news shows on such channels as CNN, FOX and MSNBC, which have 24/7 news coverage of the war, are experiencing increased ratings. Americans can tune in to war coverage on their own time schedule, day or night. (As an aside, the Persian Gulf War in 1991 established CNN as the channel to watch with round the clock news coverage.) The poll showed that nearly seven in 10 Americans are tuning into cable news shows for their coverage of the war, followed by newspapers at a distant second (30%). Roughly a quarter of respondents cited local television news shows as their source of information for war news and almost a fifth mentioned network news shows such as Nightly News with Tom Brokaw and CBS News with Dan Rather. Just 13% mentioned the Internet. About a fifth of respondents between the ages of 18 and 44 used the Internet as their main source of information.

Good news for the media. Three fifths of respondents surveyed approved of the way the media is handling coverage of the Iraqi war. Most demographic groups agreed with that assessment. This is good news for the media because in the latest Gallup Organization poll conducted in June 2002, television news and newspapers ranked toward the bottom in their “confidence in institutions” series of questions. (Military ranked the highest at 79% and HMOs ranked the lowest at 13%.) Thirty five percent each of respondents said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in television news and in newspapers.

And along with approving of their reporting on the war, 55% of Americans believe that reporters “embedded” with the military are good for the country because they give the American people an uncensored view of events as they are unfolding, while nearly two out of five think it is bad for the country because they provide too much information about military actions as they are unfolding.

Demonstrations in support of and in opposition to the war

Most people are not taking to the streets to demonstrate in support of or in opposition to the war, or expressing their opinions by sending emails, or writing their member of Congress or doing anything else. But 6% said they have protested in some way against the war and 11% say they have demonstrated in some way to support the war. More Democrats are protesting the war (9%) than Republicans (3%), while more Republicans said they have done something to show their support of the war (22%) than Democrats (5%). About a fifth of self-described liberals said they have done something to protest the war (19%), while a similar share of conservatives did some things in support of the war (18%).

However one feels about the war (and most Americans support the war in Iraq), three in five of those surveyed believe it is okay for people to voice their opinion in opposition to the war, while slightly more than a third don’t believe it is okay. Even 58% of self-described conservatives believe Americans have the right to protest. Yet, the elderly (65 years of age and older) don’t think it is okay for people to demonstrate against the war. This belief in the protesters’ right to dissent doesn’t mean they agree with their views. Two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the demonstrators’ views to overtly protest, while roughly three in 10 agreed with the protesters’ views. Not surprising, nearly three out of five self-described liberals agreed with the demonstrators’ views.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 745 Americans nationwide by telephone April 2–3. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. The entire sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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