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Iraq Polls: Surge and Diverge?

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Tonight, by all accounts, President will unveil his plan for a "surge" in
troop levels in Iraq. Do Americans agree? Recent polls have provided some very
conflicting results, with support for sending more troops to Iraq ranging anywhere from 12% to
45%. The underlying reason for all the
variation is most likely that Americans have not yet focused on the specifics
of the troop surge debate, and so when pressed by pollsters, they tend to form
opinions on the spot in reaction to the language and format of the survey
question.

Consider the following questions these examples, culled from the Polling Report, which derive from two
surveys conducted by Gallup
and CBS
News
plus a new release from a Rasmussen
Reports
automated survey:

Gallup (1/5-7, n=1,004
adults) - Here are four different plans the U.S.
could follow in dealing with the war in Iraq. Which ONE do you prefer?
Withdraw all troops from Iraq
immediately. Withdraw all troops by January 2008, that is, in 12 months' time.
Withdraw troops, but take as many years to do this as are needed to turn
control over to the Iraqis. OR, Send more troops to Iraq.

(Options rotated)


15% Withdraw immediately


39% Withdraw
by January 2008


31% Take
as long as needed


12% Send more troops


2% Unsure

CBS News (1/1-3, n=993 adults) - From what you have seen or heard
about the situation in Iraq,
what should the United
States do now? Should the U.S. increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq,
keep the same number of U.S.
troops in Iraq as there are
now, decrease the number of U.S.
troops in Iraq, or remove
all its troops from Iraq?

18% Increase


17% Keep the same


30% Decrease


29% Remove
all


6% Unsure

Rasmussen Reports (1/8-7, n=800 likely voters, IVR survey) - Some
people say that we need to send more troops to Iraq,
others say we need to begin reducing the number of troops we have in Iraq. Which
approach do you prefer?

31% Send More


56% Reduce


13% Not
sure

Gallup (1/5-7, n=1,004 adults) - As you may know, the Bush
Administration is considering a temporary but significant increase in the
number of U.S. troops in Iraq to help stabilize the situation there. Would you
favor or oppose this?

36% Favor


61% Oppose


3% Unsure

CBS News (1/1-3, n=993 adults) - Would you favor or oppose a
short-term increase in the number of U.S.
troops in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad,
to try to gain control of the city?

45% Favor


48% Oppose


7% Unsure

So on just two different recent surveys, we see support for increasing troop
levels ranging from 12% to 45% on four different questions. On his USA
Today
blog, "Gallup Guru" Frank Newport offered
two explanations for the divergence in results (also discussed by Newport on his Gallup daily video briefing).
One explanation is that questions "which give respondents multiple
alternatives to choose" from suppress support for sending more troops:

Giving respondents multiple alternatives helps
spread out response patterns to a question. The percentage saying
"send in more troops" may be low in part because the question
provides other alternatives which may be just as attractive to more hawkish
respondents ("Withdraw, but take as many years as needed to turn control
over to the Iraqis", for example, would in theory be appealing to those who
might otherwise choose the send more troops option). This question
construction is not wrong, but just one way of looking at the issue in
question.

Newport also
offered a second theory:

The question [showing only 12% support for a troop
surge] is hypothetical. The surge will be a fait accompli and will have the
authority of the White House behind it once Bush announces it. That will
most likely produce a rally effect of sorts, with at least some Americans
"coming home" to support the president even if they might in the abstract be
opposed to the new policy.

Thus, they offered the second question which made explicit that the "Bush
Administration is considering a temporary but significant increase in the
number of U.S. troops in Iraq." So, as Newport
tells it, support is greater (36%) when "when the surge is explained as a Bush
administration recommendation and described (as Bush is likely to do) as
temporary and needed in order to stabilize the situation in Iraq."

The CBS News result suggests a third theory. When the question does not include a direct
reference to support from the Bush administration, but does describe the
increase as "short-term" and limited to "the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad, to
try to gain control of the city," support is higher still (45%, with 48%
opposed).

So we have many good reasons why the results differ. Which is the best read of American public
opinion before the President's speech? I
am reading between the lines and speculating a bit, but whenever relatively
minor wording or format changes produce such different results, the policy
proposal involved (in this case, a troop "surge") is likely something about
which most Americans are not familiar. A
full read on "public opinion" in this case will likely tell us that a much
bigger percentage than 2% to 7% are "unsure" about or "unfamiliar" with the
ongoing debate over a troop surge.

That may change tonight, as the President addresses the nation and presents
a specific plan. By this time next week,
when pollsters ask about "President Bush's plan to increase the number of
troops in Iraq" (or something close to that) many more Americans will retrieve an existing opinion, rather than forming one on the spot based on the
wording of the question. So hopefully,
the results measured next week on such questions will be more consistent.

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