Polling on Iraq


Ed Kilgore surveys a recent Washington Post/ABC poll with hard to interpret results and concludes:

Pollsters need to figure out ways to (a) test the Iraq issues actually facing Congress; (b) include in questions a few basic facts about troop withdrawals (i.e., that Bush is only talking about withdrawing "surged" troops) and funding levels (i.e., how much money buys what strategy); and (c) test some dynamic scenarios involding actions by Congress and reactions by Bush (i.e., a protracted funding fight).

Until that happens, new polls on Iraq will provide grist for spin, but not for any honest assessment of where the public is at present.

I don't think that's really right. Sometimes your measurements don't produce clear results because the measurement method isn't clear enough. Other times, though, they don't produce clear results because there's nothing to see clearly. Oftentimes in politics, I think politicians would like to believe that there's an extremely clear-cut median voter view about some difficult issue, because then they can all go adopt that view, and come what may they'll say they were doing what they had to do because of public opinion. But realistically if the public's answers to ABC's questions about Iraq are incoherent, that's probably because the key "swing" group of people actually has fuzzy, somewhat incoherent thoughts about Iraq.

Under the circumstances, what politicians ought to do is:

  1. Figure out what they think is the correct Iraq policy.
  2. Figure out what they think is the most persuasive way to sell that policy to the public.
  3. Pray it works.

At the end of the day, I think a lot of politicians actually underrate the considerable virtue of adopting a position that's correct on the merits. If you think the merits through, then you'll have a principled basis for answering a variety of different questions and responding to different sorts of attacks. And, of course, the election happens over a year from now so if you say something that's correct, and time proves you correct, then you'll look prescient and be able to say you took a bold stance and have the courage to lead. Polling data's nice when there's clear and convincing evidence of firm public conviction about something, but I just don't see that on Iraq. The search for better polling mostly seems like an effort to evade the substantive responsibilities of political office.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dallas