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Monday, December 19, 2011

American Public Opinion and Iraq

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta officially declared an end to the war in Iraq last Thursday, marking the end of the U.S. involvement in that country that began over eight and a half years ago.

A review of available data suggests that Americans are “OK” with the decision to end the war.

Most directly, 75% of Americans in an October Gallup poll said they supported President Barack Obama’s decision to end the war by the end of this year. Republican President George W. Bush began the war, so it is perhaps not surprising to find that Republicans were slightly more likely to disapprove than approve of the decision to withdraw by the end of the year. That may reflect, in part, the fact that the poll question included the reference to “President Obama’s” decision. Republicans, as a rule, are more negative than the national average about most things that Democratic President Obama does. Independents and Democrats overwhelmingly approved the decision to get out of Iraq.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney contend that history will judge their decision to go into Iraq a success. That point has not yet arrived. A majority of Americans have, on average, considered the Iraq war to have been a mistake each year since 2005.

The tradition of asking Americans whether U.S. involvement in a war was a mistake or not goes back to August 1950, when Dr. George Gallup asked the American public “In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Korea, do you think the United States made a mistake in deciding to defend Korea, or not?” At that point, 20% said “yes,” and 65% said “no.”

Since asking that question about Korea, we have asked it about the Vietnam war, the first Persian Gulf War (1991), sending military forces to Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (beginning in November 2001), and Iraq.

That first “mistake” question about Iraq came in a March 24-25, 2003, survey, just a few days after George W. Bush announced to the public that the U.S. was beginning the invasion. We found 23% of Americans said “yes,” and 75% said “no.”

It is useful to compare this 23% to the aforementioned 20% who initially thought Korea was a mistake, the 24% who said that Vietnam was a mistake when Gallup first asked about it in late August/early September 1965, the 16% who said that the Persian Gulf War was a mistake just after the initial air attacks began there in January 1991, and the 9% who thought Afghanistan was a mistake in Gallup’s first poll asking that question. (Unfortunately, the question was not asked after Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. became involved in World War II, but it is reasonable to assume that few Americans at that point would have declared it a mistake.)

In short, Americans generally give the benefit of the doubt to U.S. leaders when a war is initiated. Relatively few criticize U.S. involvement in a war as it is beginning.

That changes as wars progress.

The percentage of Americans saying the Iraq War was a mistake rose slowly after Gallup’s initial March 2003 survey into the 40% range, and by June of 2004 had risen to 54%, breaking through the majority barrier for the first time.

This is significant because it happened so quickly.

The path in Vietnam was somewhat different. As noted, 24% of Americans said that war was a mistake in an Aug. 27-Sept. 1, 1965 Gallup poll, the first time that question was asked, and about five months after President Lyndon B. Johnson began significant escalation of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam. The “mistake” percentage rose into the 30% range in 1966, reached into the 40% range in late 1967 and throughout the first part of 1968, and then burst through the majority level in Gallup’s Aug. 7-12, 1968 survey.

If you do the math and consider March 1965 as the official starting point of the major U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, you see that it took three years and five months for a majority of Americans to say they opposed the Vietnam War.

Korean? As noted, 20% said it was a mistake in August 1950, just as the U.S. ground troop involvement began after the invasion of South Korea by North Koreans. That jumped to 49% by January 1951 -- but not 50% -- and fluctuated some, dropping to as low as 37% in the summer of 1951, and finally reached 51% in a February-March 1952 survey. That majority “mistake” percentage came about one year and eight months after U.S. involvement in Korea began.

As noted previously, it took about one year and three months for a majority of Americans to say they opposed the Iraq War.

Thus, the Iraq War has a legacy of generating majority opposition more quickly than at least the other two major wars since WWII -- Vietnam and Korea.

Support for the Iraq war changed over time after June and July 2004. The mistake percentage fell down, rose again above 50% in January 2005, dropped, and then from October 2005 on has consistently been above 50%. The high point for the “mistake” percentage for the Iraq war was 63% in April 2008, in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign. The last time Gallup asked the question, in August of 2010, the mistake percentage had settled down to 55%.

Was the Iraq war worth it? In August 2010, Gallup found that while a majority of Americans thought that Iraq was better off because of the U.S. involvement there, a majority also thought that history would judge the U.S. invasion and involvement in Iraq a failure.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gingrich's Lead Over Romney Shrinks

Newt Gingrich’s lead over Mitt Romney in our latest Dec. 10-14 Gallup Daily tracking of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents has shrunk to five percentage points. That’s down from a 15-point lead in our first report of tracking for Dec. 1-5.

Gingrich at two separate points this month registered the support of 37% of Republicans. His support is now at 29%. Republican support for Romney, “Mr. Steady,” hasn’t moved much at all, fluctuating on a daily basis in our reports between 22% and 25%. He’s at 24% now.

As Gingrich has slipped, the percentage of Republicans who are undecided has edged up, from 14% when we started to 18% today. Ron Paul is now in third place at 10%, a couple of points up from where he started, while Michele Bachmann is at 7%, Rick Perry at 5%, Rick Santorum at 4%, and Jon Huntsman at 2%.

This GOP race continues to be one of the most fascinating in recent memory. I’ve been asked frequently if Gingrich will emulate the rainbow pattern of Perry and Herman Cain, both of whom shot up to lead the GOP pack, only to crash back to earth. Gingrich is still leading, to be sure, so he has not crashed yet. But his trajectory at the moment is beginning to look somewhat “rainbow-esque.”

The Republicans will hold their 13th and final GOP debate tonight in Iowa, and what transpires there may change things once again. Make sure to monitor Gallup’s Daily tracking of the GOP race to get the latest update each day at 1pm. We report on a five-day rolling average of well over 1,000 Republicans, so our results provide a constantly up-to-date, solid estimate of the views of the average Republican voter out there across the country.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tracking the GOP Race

People have questions about our Gallup tracking of the vote preferences of Republicans. One question I often hear: Since the GOP nomination will be one on a state by state basis through primaries and caucuses, why pay attention to the national numbers?

Here are some answers to that:

1. The only state numbers that mean much now are Iowa and New Hampshire, and the voters' views in those two states are changing and possibly will change more between now and their caucus and primary dates.

The positioning of the candidates in the rest of the states will change in cascading effect after actual votes begin coming in from these two early states. The national voting intentions of Republicans will also change in cascading effect once the state results begin to come in.

Monitoring this cascading change using the national numbers provides us a larger sample base and a broader audience than keeping up with each state individually. It’s a more efficient mechanism for monitoring the impact of campaign events and election results.

2. The election process has been more nationalized than usual this year, primarily because there have been so many more nationally-televised debates. Local, retail politicking in the individual states has become less valuable or necessary, at least up to this point.

It therefore makes sense to measure Republican voters' sentiments on the broad, national stage. We are measuring the candidates, as it were, in front of a big, national test audience -- since they, in essence, are playing to the big, national audience. The views of the national audience of Republicans provides an excellent indicator of exactly how the campaigns are playing out.

3. So far, the shifts we have seen in the national numbers are being duplicated at the individual state level. Most recently, as we have seen the surge in movement for Newt Gingrich nationally, we have also seen it in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.  So the national tracking essentially provides a measure of the same trends seen in the individual states.

4. It’s easier and much more cost efficient to conduct daily tracking on the national level than it is to provide daily tracking at individual state levels.

We also receive questions about the methodology we use for our tracking.

At this point, our national tracking of Republicans’ preferences for their party’s nominee is based on five-day rolling averages of over 1,000 interviews each day. Every day we drop off the oldest day’s interviews and add on the most recent day’s interviews. That means from one day to the next, 80% of the interviews being reported are the same. For example, Monday’s results were based on the combined interviewing for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday among Republicans nationwide. On Tuesday, we reported the combined interviewing for Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. So the interviewing conducted on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday remains in both samples. The Wednesday interviewing was replaced by the Monday interviewing on Tuesday.

Our decision-making on this rolling average is based on the need to balance interest in keeping the data relatively stable, while at the same time allowing it to pick up actual changes in the minds of voters.

All of our experience, going back to presidential election tracking in 1992, shows that surveys of voters will be volatile at the day-to-day level. Some of this is sampling error. That means that even if the population of Republicans nationwide hasn’t changed their views at all, the voter preferences measured on Monday will be at least somewhat different than the voter preferences measured on Tuesday due to the fact that any sample from a population will not perfectly represent that population. So, if we simply reported the results of each night’s interviewing, even with a larger sample size, we would get fluctuations that would not, in reality, be indicative of underlying change.

At the same time, there are real, day-to-day changes in voters’ preferences for candidates. Some observers have found this hard to comprehend, in my experience, but it’s true. Voter preferences are not totally stable on a day-to-day basis. There are enough voters who are on the fence about their preferred candidate that even if we were able to interview everyone in the population daily, we would find change. That’s particularly true when we are interviewing people in one party only (about their primary nominee choice) as is the case now, since these people are not anchored by party identification and are, in many ways, freer to jump around. We have certainly seen that this year so far.

So, if we “go long” and combine two weeks' worth of interviewing and each night dropped off the oldest night and added in the most recent night, we would have a highly stable estimate each night, but one that would be very slow to reflect real world changes in the population. For example, we anticipate that the preferences of Republicans nationwide for their nominee will change after the results of the Iowa caucuses come in on Jan. 3. If the time frame for our tracking is too wide, it would take a long time for those changes to begin to appear in our daily reports.

If we “go short” and combine one to three days of interviewing, we would have a highly sensitive estimate each night, but one that would show too much volatility and would not be an optimal guide to what is actually changing.

We hit on the five-day rolling average as the best compromise and midpoint between these two extremes. Even with that, we are seeing some variation in the daily five-day number we report as the voter preferences for the GOP candidates. This reflects both sampling error and some actual real world volatility in Republicans’ views on who they support.

We will monitor this as we go. Right now, the basic structure of the race has remained roughly the same since we initiated tracking on Dec. 1. Gingrich is receiving about 33% support from Republican registered voters nationally, with fluctuation around that point each day, while Romney’s support has been remarkably stable around 23%. The other candidates are all fluctuating slightly down in the single digits.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Seven Things to Know About the Republican Nomination Contest

1. In December 2007, Gallup polling showed the Republican race shaped up as follows: Rudy Giuliani with 27% of Republican support, Mike Huckabee with 16% of Republican support, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and John McCain, all tied with 14% of Republican support. Our Gallup analysis was mainly focused on Giuliani's positioning and the Huckabee surge. Very little attention was paid to McCain.

2. John McCain tied for third with Fred Thompson in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Both were behind the winner Mike Huckabee and also behind Mitt Romney.

3. As you know, despite points 1 and 2 above, McCain went on to win the 2008 Republican nomination. In other words, a lot changed once actual voting began in January 2008. And we can expect that a lot can change once voting begins in January 2012.

4. There is a group of Republicans, in our data disproportionately older Republicans and Tea Party supporters, who are apparently the shifters within the GOP. They are most likely to have jumped around looking "for someone to believe in." They thought Perry was going to be that man, then Cain. Now Newt Gingrich is their favorite, even though he is certainly different than Perry or Cain. Gingrich’s support goes from 26% among 18- to 34-year-old Republicans to 46% among Republicans aged 55 and older, from 28% among liberal/moderate Republicans to 41% among conservative Republicans, and is 25% among those Republicans who do not identify themselves as Tea Party supporters compared to 47% among Tea Party supporters.

The fact that these older, more conservative segments of Republicans have been so labile in their choices so far this year suggests that they may continue to be labile in the weeks ahead.

5. A recent New York Times opinion piece by Ross Douthat ponders the possibility that highly religious Republicans will hesitate to support Newt Gingrich because of his “thrice-married” marital history.

However, our data as of now show that highly religious Republicans nationally are no more and no less likely to support Gingrich than less religious Republicans. Highly religious Republicans are also no more and no less likely to support Romney, who is, of course, a Mormon. Highly religious Republicans are somewhat more supportive of Rick Santorum, who has made family values and family issues the centerpiece of his campaign -- although Santorum's support remains low in every segment.

Thus, so far, we don’t see any sign of a big pushback to Gingrich among the most religious Republicans, although he is not doing disproportionately well among them either.

Evangelicals form a disproportionate percentage of the Iowa caucus goers (remember former Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee won the GOP primary in Iowa in 2008), yet, so far, recent polling (see here and here for the latest examples) show that Gingrich has a significant lead in Iowa among likely caucus goers, so it doesn’t look like his “thrice-married” status is hurting him there.

Gingrich did very publicly convert to Catholicism to meld with his current wife’s religion and he proclaims to be very religious personally. It used to be that highly religious Protestants/evangelicals were leery of Catholics (e.g., John Kennedy’s presidential race in 1960) but today it may be that the fact that Gingrich is indicating that he is very religious in a Christian faith is inoculating him. Plus, his major opponent at the moment is a Mormon, which is a negative to a certain percentage of highly religious Protestant Christians.

6. All of the campaigning for their party’s nomination may be having a negative impact on Republicans’ enthusiasm about next year’s election. Republicans' hopes for a candidate that can beat Barack Obama and return control of the White House to the GOP may be at least temporarily dampened.

7. Gingrich has been very lucky this year that the campaign for the GOP nomination has essentially been a national one, played out through a long series of multiple nationally-televised debates -- as opposed to a more typical retail politicking campaign played out at the state level. The debates apparently have helped Gingrich. Debates play very directly into the former Speaker and college professor's strengths --. the ability to expostulate at length in answer to policy questions.  This is, in fact, what he has been doing for years in the private sector. Plus, Gingrich was way down in the polls in the debates so far this year, meaning that he was loose and free in his style and comments, since he had nothing to lose.

One key question is how Gingrich will fare in the debates going forward between now and Jan. 3, given that he is suddenly the front-runner and therefore: a) his every utterance will be more heavily scrutinized, b) he will become the candidate who is more likely to be attacked by his fellow candidates, and c) he may be more worried about a gaffe and therefore less free and loose in his responses.

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