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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are Americans Warming to the War?

A big new presidential candidate survey by the Pew Research folks is getting a lot of attention this week. Its top-line finding was that Obama and Clinton are running seven and five points, respectively, over John McCain. And there’s lots of interesting if somewhat predictable data about the strengths and weaknesses of the three candidates.
But because the survey’s subtitle was “Increasing Optimism About Iraq,” I thought I’d read that section carefully to see if the findings were in accord with the growing CW that the American public is moving toward John McCain’s position on the war.
Turns out the main two findings that support this subheadline are questions that ask how the current military effort is going, and whether respondents think the U.S. will “succeed” or “fail” in Iraq. Compared to a year ago, assessments of the current military effort have shifted from 67-30 negative to 48-48 (they had actually moved to 54-41 positive in September 2007, during all the hype over the Petraeus testimony). And by a 53-39 margin, respondents now say they think the U.S. will “succeed” in Iraq, whatever that means. They said the same by a much narrower 47-46 margin a year ago.
So that all sounds good for John McCain, right? Well, not so fast. On the bedrock issue of whether Americans think going to war in Iraq was the right or wrong decision, the numbers haven’t budged over the last year. In fact, the percentage saying it was the right decision has actually dropped from 40% to 38%, with the contrary position is held by a steady 54%.
But what about the future of the war? When the question is posed as to whether the U.S. should get troops out or keep troops in, Pew shows a modest trend towards “keep them in” (47-49 as opposed to 42-53 a year ago). But in the secondary question, respondents are given four options: remove all troops immediately (14%), bring troops home gradually, over the next year or two (33%), keep troops in but establish a timetable for withdrawal (16%), or keep troops in without a timetable (30%). It’s a highly dubious way to frame the question, since it’s not clear there’s much if any difference between “bring troops home gradually” or “keep troops in with a timetable.”
Those two “out gradually but definitely” options between immediate withdrawal and indefinite continuation of the war command 49%, up two percent from a year ago. And those two options are a lot closer to the positions of Obama and Clinton than to McCain’s.
So far all the growing “optimism” on Iraq, more than half of Americans still think the war was a mistake, and nearly two-thirds want to get the troops out according to some definite timetable, if not immediately.
Meanwhile, John McCain not only voted for the war and supported the war, but has attacked anyone considering it any sort of mistake, or wanting to bring it to an end unless “victory” has been accomplished. After all, he spent quite some time attacking Mitt Romney for being willing to even use the word “timetable.” Moreover, he’s made this a signature issue, which means that he won’t benefit, as some less Iraq-focused candidate might have, from a shift of public attention to other issues that don’t favor the GOP, like the economy or health care.
So even this survey (from an organization whose data has long showed stronger public support for the war than that of others) shouldn’t provide much comfort for John McCain. He’s fighting an uphill battle on Iraq, and just because it’s a slightly less impossible climb than it once appeared is no reason to think he’s going to get to the top.

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