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Mark Blumenthal Headshot

Iraq War: Losing or Lost?

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Thanks to Washington Post blogger Dan
for tipping me off to this exchange from yesterday's press
by presidential press secretary Tony Snow that leads indirectly to
some fundamental questions regarding public opinion and the Iraq War:

Q Tony, you mentioned the polls, and talked about
the Republican support. All the polls also show that big majorities of the
American public do not support the war. Have you heard the President talk about
how difficult it is to fight a war or prosecute a war without the public's

MR. SNOW: The President understands the importance
of public support. What's also interesting is that you see numbers coming up again on, do you think we're winning or
do you think -- for instance, a pretty
strong majority now, when asked, do you think we're losing, say no
. That's
an important data point. When it talks about, would you like the Americans to
succeed, the answer is yes. So you always have mixed feelings.


Is Snow right? Have the numbers really "come up" that much? Snow
is presumably thinking about two nearly identical results asked on two recently
released national polls:

  • CNN/ORC (5/4-6, n=1,208 adults): "Do you think that the U.S. war in Iraq is lost, or don't you think so?"

41% lost

55% don't think so

4% don't know

  • Quinnipiac (4/25-5/1, n=1,166 registered voters): "Do you think that the U.S. war in Iraq is lost, or don't you think so?"

41% lost

49 don't think so

11% unsure

Putting aside a quibble about whether those results amount
to a "strong majority," they certainly show more Americans rejecting than
accepting the notion that the war "is lost." The pollsters asked these questions
after Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid told
on April 19, "I believe ... that this war is lost, and this
surge is not accomplishing anything."

As first glance, these new results certainly seem like a big
change from a question traced by the ABC News/Washington Post poll:
"All told, do you think the United States
is winning or losing the war in Iraq?"
As recently as January, a nearly two-to-one margin (57% to 29%) believed the
U.S was "losing," a five point increase in the "losing" percentage since


So have opinions on the war changed really that much in just
a few months? I doubt it. The more likely explanation is that, in the context
of the Iraq War, some Americans are interpreting the "losing" and "is lost"
very differently.

Consider the most recent results of questions tracked by the
Pew Research Center
and CBS News:

  • Pew Research Center (4/18-22, n=1,508 adults): "How is the U.S. Military effort going in Iraq?"

7% very well

31% fairly well

34% not too well

25% not well at all

3% don't know

  • CBS News (4/9-12, n=994 adults): "How would you say things are going for the U.S. in its efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq? Would you say things are going very well, somewhat well, somewhat badly, or very badly?"

2% very well

29% somewhat well

30% somewhat badly

36% very badly

3% unsure

So both organizations, in surveys conducted just before and
just after Reid's remarks, show the same general pessimism reflected in the January
ABC/Washington Post "is losing"
results. By roughly two-to-one margins, Americans say the War effort is going
"badly" or "not well."

More important, while both CBS and Pew show a slight up-tick
(roughly six percentage points) in March and April as compared to December
through February, the long term trend has been to greater pessimism. And the
current overall results essentially match the reading of the January ABC/Post
poll about the direction of the war. The following chart shows the results for
the Pew survey. The CBS trend data (available via Polling Report) shows the same pattern.


Again, my hunch is that Americans interpret the words "is
lost" very differently from "is losing," though the bigger issue is whether
this semantic distinction has political consequences. A lot of conservative
commentators seem to think so, given their reaction to Reid's
remarks. Tony Snow is likely right that most Americans want our military to
succeed in Iraq.
However, if the seemingly contradictory results cited above are about a subset
of American who believe that the war is not winnable yet perhaps not yet
completely "lost," then we have a distinction without much difference.

Consider, for example the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal
Poll (4/20-23, n=1,004 adults) that reported 55% saying it is "not possible" to
achieve the U.S. goal of
"achieving victory in Iraq."
Now recall that academics that have studied public support for wars past and
present - including one that has been advising the Bush White House - believe
that "prospective evaluations of mission success" are the key to continuing
support for the Iraq War.

All of this suggests some things my media pollster colleagues
might want to test on future surveys. First, the issue of whether my hunch is
right regarding the meaning of "losing" vs. "is lost." A survey could confirm
this easily enough with an experiment that divides the sample randomly for a
side-by-side test of two questions:

  • Do you think that the U.S. war in Iraq is lost, or don't you think so?
  • Do you think the United States is winning or losing the war in Iraq?

It might also be useful to try to get individual respondents
to decide whether "lost" or "is losing" better describes their opinion. In
other words, ask if they believe the U.S.
"has won," "is winning," "is losing" or "has lost" the Iraq war. Do those who believe the U.S. "is
losing" in Iraq but has not yet "lost" see any hope of winning in the future?

UPDATE: Professor Franklin sends along a slightly improved version of my "how are things going" chart of Pew Research Center data that adds the very similar results from CBS News and plots a smoothed regression line through the points. Click the image below for the easier-to-read full size version.