In the right hands, a properly conducted poll is the journalistic equivalent of a precision-guided weapon.
As this new gulf war moves toward its third week, that's exactly the role being played by the unprecedented public-opinion research effort that leading American news organizations now are conducting. For the first time in history, a nation engaged in armed conflict is having its popular pulse taken by independent pollsters on a daily basis. The result, say leading opinion researchers, is not simply journalistic novelty, but an unanticipated extension of democratic sentiment into the business of covering war.
Since fighting began March 20, more opinion surveys have been conducted than were taken during the entire Second World War. Their findings have become a nightly feature of the cable news network and a regular part of the daily newspaper coverage.
In part, according to Andrew Kohut, who directs daily polling for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "it's simply that we need to do daily tracking because this is a 24/7 war. There is an intricate interplay going on: The war is being fought around the clock; the media is providing nonstop coverage, which the public is following closely and we're getting their reactions. In other words, we're documenting history."
But the media -- no less than the military -- learned vital lessons from Vietnam. One of them is that America's foreign wars always are fought on two fronts: the one abroad and the one at home. Generals, editors and news directors share a common understanding that at the end of the day, the hearts and minds that matter most are in middle America, not the Euphrates Valley.
For the moment, according to Times Poll director Susan Pinkus, the evidence is that a substantial majority of those American hearts and minds beat and think as one. "Public opinion during the first days of the Iraqi war has been pretty consistent," she said. "Most media polls -- Pew's, CBS/New York Times, ABC News/Washington Post, CNN/USA Today/Gallup -- show Americans strongly supporting the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power and also solidly behind the way President Bush is handling the Iraqi situation. These are not surprising results, given that Americans are prone to rally around the troops in times of crisis."
William Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst, agrees that "Americans are watching this war pretty closely and the day-by-day polling has shown that -- after an initial burst of euphoria -- a sober realism has set in. Americans now believe, according to our surveys, that the war will be tougher and bloodier than anticipated, but more than 70% of Americans are behind the war. Morale, in other words, has not flagged."
Like Pinkus and Schneider, Kohut has been struck by the polls' remarkably consistent findings. "They all show the same thing," he said. "People's judgments about the war's duration and cost has shifted with events, but their resolve remains high."
The war with Iraq has begun with almost the same level of public support the Johnson administration enjoyed when it began the concerted buildup of U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965.
It took three years of bloody conflict and increasingly intense journalistic scrutiny before popular sentiment turned decisively against the war in 1968.
That shift was a response not only to events on the battlefield, but also to Washington's duplicity. At least one of the past week's poll findings raises a similar caution. "In a CBS/New York Times poll taken on the fifth day of the war," Pinkus noted, "a majority of the public believed the war would be long and costly -- a shift from a poll from the same organizations conducted during the war's first few days. Then, 59% thought the war would be quick and successful, but now, more than three-fifths of respondents are skeptical of the Bush administration's assessment of the war. Americans don't think the Bush administration explained clearly how much money the war with Iraq will cost, or even how long the war will last. And, almost three-quarters don't think the president has clearly explained how many military casualties there will be."
Earlier this week, Schneider drew a sharp response from some of his network's viewers when he said that finding suggested the administration runs the risk of opening what in the Vietnam era was called "a credibility gap. I got calls and e-mails from very angry conservatives saying, 'How dare you?' "
" 'Quagmire' is another Vietnam-era word people go crazy over," Schneider said. "The fact remains, though, that when President Bush tells the American people that the war will last 'as long as it takes,' the polls show people are frustrated with that response. In this case, people don't think the administration is lying, they just think it's not answering the question and that's frustrating, which is potentially dangerous."
What do the polls say about attitudes toward the media and its wall-to-wall coverage?
According to Pinkus, "Virtually all Americans are following the war story fairly or very closely, and four out of five rate the coverage either excellent or good." A Pew survey released Friday afternoon reported that 60% of the respondents approved the journalism produced by embedded journalists, while one-third thought the presence of reporters in combat units is a bad idea.
But Pew also found that 42% of those polled said, "It tires me out to watch" televised coverage of the war, compared with about one in three who expressed such sentiments a week ago.
"The media are providing a window into the war," Kohut said, "and our independent polls are giving people their say about what they see. Vietnam showed you can't run a war without public support."
A running account of where that support stands, argued Schneider, has allowed the media to calibrate their coverage. Without the polls, he said, "a lot of journalists and commentators would have concluded that things are going badly and that based on the anecdotal reporting of antiwar demonstrations, the public is abandoning the war. In fact, all of our polls have found that morale is holding up and reporting that has given the people a voice."