Parsing the Polls: Time for an Iraq Timeline?
Last week the U.S. Senate conducted a heated debate about the best course of action in Iraq. Charges of "cut and run" and "lie and die" were traded between leaders of the two parties, but the most interesting element of the week was Democrats' inability to bring forward a single, alternative Iraq policy.
Sens. Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and John Kerry (Mass.) introduced an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would have required that troop withdrawals from Iraq be largely completed by July 1, 2007. Aside from Kerry and Feingold, just 10 other Democrats supported that proposal -- only one of whom (appointed Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey) -- faces a serious reelection challenge this fall.
A second Democratic amendment, which did not propose a specific deadline but called for troop withdrawals to begin by December, received 37 Democratic votes. A few Democrats with potentially serious races this fall, like Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), voted for neither amendment, as did Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who faces a primary challenge from the left.
With a majority of Senate Democrats refusing to back the Kerry-Feingold amendment, The Fix decided to examine recent polling on the question to see whether it bears out that caution or whether Democrats in the Senate (and Republicans for that matter) are lagging behind the will of the American public.
The most recent -- and detailed -- information we have to analyze public sentiment in terms of setting a timetable to leave Iraq comes from the Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday.
Since wording matters a great deal* in analyzing the responses to survey questions, here's the full text of the question: "Some people say the Bush administration should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further casualties. Others say knowing when the U.S. would pull out would only encourage the anti-government insurgents. Do you yourself think the United States should or should not set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq?"
Forty-seven percent of the sample said the U.S. should set a deadline, while 51 percent said it should not. Contrast that with responses to the same question in December 2005, when 39 percent favored setting a deadline and 60 percent did not. In late August 2005 the numbers were almost the same (39 percent in favor/59 percent against). It's not hard to see that there is clearly growing support among Americans for setting a date certain for exiting Iraq.
Thanks to The Post's incomparable polling team of Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, The Fix got a look at the numbers behind the numbers for this question.
Two-thirds of Democrats who responded to the poll said they favor a timetable for withdrawal, while just 28 percent of Republicans said they felt the same way. Independents were more divided, with 44 percent in favor of a timeline and 55 percent opposed. Those results are generally consistent along ideological lines, with 65 percent of liberals, 50 percent of moderates and 33 percent of conservatives in support of setting a withdrawal date.
Other interesting trends from inside the Post-ABC data include a major gender gap -- 55 percent of women support a deadline compared with just 38 percent of men (a phenomenon Morin and reporter Dan Balz touched on in their story on the poll Tuesday). Democratic women were the strong backers of a deadline (69 percent) while Republican males stood strongest in opposition (77 percent). Among independents, women were much more strongly behind a timetable (55 percent) than men (34 percent).
Looking for a profile of an individual most likely to support deadline-setting? It's probably a westerner between the ages of 18 and 29 who has no more than a high school degree and makes under $20,000 a year. Fifty-four percent of westerners sampled by Post-ABC favored setting a timeline for withdrawal, as did 58 percent of 18-29 year olds, 56 percent of respondents with a high school degree or less and 67 percent of people making $20,000 a year or less.
And the person most likely to oppose a withdrawal deadline? A southerner between the ages of 50 and 64 years of age with either a college or post-graduate degree who makes more than $100,000 a year. Forty-four percent of southerners opposed a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops, along with 40 percent of 50-64 year olds, 39 percent of persons with a college degree (or higher) and 37 percent of people making $100,000 a year or more.
Seeking to put the Post-ABC results in context, we sought out some other polling on the issue. A CNN/USA Today poll gave its sample four "plans the U.S. could follow in dealing with the war in Iraq."
Half of those tested favored either an immediate withdrawal (17 percent) or a withdrawal within a year (33 percent). Forty-one percent said America should withdraw but "take as many years as necessary" and eight percent advocated sending more troops.
CNN asked a similar question and received similar results. The question was: "Which one do you prefer -- withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately, withdraw all troops by June 2007 -- 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?" Eighteen percent chose the first option, 29 percent the second, 42 percent the third and six percent the fourth. That's 47 percent who back withdrawal either immediately or within a year, compared with 42 percent who want to withdraw but without any set timetable.
What can we conclude from these polls? There appears to be majority support among Democratic voters for setting some sort of timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq within the next year and a large bloc of independents (roughly 4 in 10) who share that sentiment. The majority of Republicans still opposes the idea of a timeline but, according to the Post-ABC poll, one in three believes a withdrawal timetable should be instituted.
Why then did the amendment offered by Feingold and Kerry not get more support from Democrats in the Senate? The GOP's "cut and run" attack may have been the key, especially just two weeks after the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad. With five months still to go before the midterm elections, endangered Democrats may have been worried about the political impact of voting for a withdrawal in the event the situation improved measurably in Iraq by November.
And Republicans -- Senate and House -- appear to have made the calculation that their party owns the war in the minds of voters. Standing by the president's position, therefore, is less a choice by congressional Republicans than an acknowledgment that backing away from the president now could win them nothing in the eyes of voters.
What's your take? Did Democratic senators simply vote their consciences? Could it be that the wording of the poll questions failed to get to the essence of the issue? Are establishment Democrats being too careful? Or are they being savvy to oppose a date certain since voters in the middle, who will likely make or break this fall's elections, remain largely undecided about how they feel? Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
* For more on the importance of how poll questions are worded, read Mystery Pollster Mark Blumenthal's take on the issue.
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