Petraeus’ Poll Surge
The anticipation of testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker has had the desired effect of moving public opinion on the war, albeit modestly.
Public discontent with the Iraq war has eased slightly, a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll shows, suggesting President Bush may have a little more maneuvering room at a critical point in debates over war costs and troop levels. As Mr. Bush prepares to follow congressional testimony by the top general in Iraq, David Petraeus, with a televised speech to the nation tonight, the poll shows an uptick in support for the president’s handling of the war as well as a small increase in the proportion of Americans who believe the troop surge is helping and that victory remains possible.
Those shifts in public opinion remain modest. Solid majorities continue to disapprove of the president’s performance and say victory in Iraq isn’t possible and that the war hasn’t been worth its human and financial costs. “There’s been no surge from the American people,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the Journal/NBC poll with Republican counterpart Neil Newhouse[*]. Yet only one in four Americans say troops should leave now regardless of conditions on the ground. The public’s “heads and hearts are going in two different directions,” Mr. Newhouse said. “They want the troops to come home but think we can’t just leave.”
That’s exactly right, I think; indeed, that seems to be the consensus within the foreign policy community as well. Aside from a few wild-eyed neoconservatives, nobody thinks we’re about to win in Iraq; few think we can win at all, at least as defined by the original grandiose vision of Iraq as a model that would cause democracy to germinate across the Arab Middle East. Still, enough people are persuaded that things would be even worse if we leave now that they’re begrudgingly willing to keep plugging away the proverbial “another six months.”
The slight improvement in Iraq sentiment followed extensive news coverage anticipating the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. The telephone survey of 1,002 adults was conducted Sept. 7-10, with most interviews completed before their Monday testimony; the survey’s margin of error is 3.1 percentage points.
The proportion of Americans who say the war remains winnable has edged up to 37% from 32% in July, while the majority who say it isn’t has diminished to 56% from 62%. The proportion saying the troop surge is helping the situation on the ground has risen to 33% from 29% in July and 24% in April.
Mr. Bush’s approval rating on Iraq still is paltry, at 30%. But that is up from 22% in July, while approval for his handling of the economy remained unchanged at 38%. The change in his Iraq approval rating, driven by improved marks among Republicans, independents and men, pushed Mr. Bush’s overall approval rating up to 33%, from 31% in July.
This movement is indeed modest; indeed, some of the fluctation is within the margin of sampling error. Further, it’s rather odd that WSJ/MSNBC fielded the survey before the testimony was complete. It’ll be interesting to see whether the numbers continue to ascend in the wake of the testimony, plummet because of over-high expectations, or remain static.
*Full disclosure: Newhouse is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, where my wife is COO.