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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Afghanistan Leak and Public Opinion

It's still too early to know how or if the leaked Afghanistan war documents will shift American public opinion. A lot of the focus is on the issue of the leak itself, rather than the substance of the documents. It’s doubtful that many will actually read the documents, which are massive. Most Americans will be aware that they were leaked on the Internet site and published in The New York Times and other outlets.

Keep in mind that Americans give the military the highest confidence rating of any institution we test. This has been the case for a number of years now. This, in some ways, inoculates the military from being adversely affected by whatever is in the documents.

On the other hand, the presidency has lower confidence ratings as an institution, and Congress is dead last in terms of confidence. So there is a higher probability that the release of the leaked documents may cause Americans to be more negatively focused on these government institutions -- involved as they have been in getting the country into Afghanistan and then monitoring the progress there since -- than on the military that is executing the war.

Plus, newspapers enjoy only a 25% confidence rating at this point, three percentage points off the all time low. Newspapers too may be a likely victim of public disapprobation as a result of the leaks.

What about public opinion on the war itself?  Gallup’s early July data showed the majority of Americans were still supportive of the war, in the sense that they did not say it was a mistake.

A reporter called and asked me how this leak related to the famous Pentagon Papers leak in 1971. We know that at the time of the Pentagon Papers leak, a majority of Americans already were saying that the Vietnam war was a mistake. At this point, only a minority of Americans say that U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan was a mistake. So it’s a different situation. The potential impact of the currently leaked documents on views of the Afghanistan war would appear to be higher than the impact of the Pentagon Papers on views of the Vietnam war -- given that going into this week Americans were generally supportive.

At the same time, over 6 out of 10 Americans said in July that things were going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

The leaked documents show that there were and are problems with the execution of the Afghanistan war.  This, however, apparently will not come as a great shock to the average American.

I've heard commentators over the last several days repeat the mantra that the American public is losing faith in the war.  The validity of that assertion is relative.  More say the war was a mistake now than in the early 2000s, but the "mistake" percentage is still well under 50%. 

We will be updating these indicators shortly and will be able to measure empirically what impact, at least in the short term, the leaked document incident may have had.


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