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Parsing the Polls: Iraq and the GOP Frontrunners

National polling numbers that show a majority of the American public not only opposes the war in Iraq but also believes it was not worth fighting. Then why have the three leading candidates for the 2008 Republican nomination been largely supportive of President Bush on the issue?

A new poll -- conducted by the Republican firm Moore Information -- provides some answers.

Let's Parse the Polls!

At its root, the Moore Information poll is built around a single question: Is the United States doing a good or a bad job in Iraq?

Hardly a surprise: By a margin of roughly two to one, the survey respondents chose the latter description (32 percent good job/59 percent bad job). It's also not terribly surprising that Democrats are the most likely to choose the "bad job" description (84 percent) while Republicans are the least likely (32 percent). Independents are slightly more divided but still opt for bad (57 percent) over good (27 percent) when asked about the job the U.S. is doing in Iraq.

The fascinating elements of the poll, which was in the field from Feb. 6-8 and tested 800 registered voters nationwide, come when the Republican respondents are broken down into "hard" and "soft" categories. For the purposes of this survey, Moore Information defined "hard" Republicans as those who vote "mostly or only" for GOP candidates; "soft" Republicans are those who vote for "a few more Republicans than Democrats."

The disparity in viewpoint between these two groups is shocking. Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of "hard" Republicans said the U.S. was doing a good job in Iraq, while just 27 percent said the country was doing a bad job. "Soft" Republicans were much less supportive; 48 percent said the U.S. was doing a good job in Iraq compared with 41 percent who chose the "bad" descriptor.

One other number jumped out at us in the Moore Information survey. The pollsters asked those voters who said the U.S. was doing a "bad job" in Iraq who should bear responsibility for the situation. A whopping one-third of those "bad job" voters said Bush alone was to blame for the situation. Three-in-ten voters said Bush and "all the Members of Congress who voted for the war" were responsible while 24 percent said it was Bush and Republicans in Congress who should be blamed.

What do these numbers mean to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- the three frontrunners for the Republican nomination?

First, the Moore Information poll makes clear that the views of the most reliably Republican voters stand in stark contrast to those of the American public at large. These "hard" Republicans also happen to be the key constituency for each of the Republican candidates hoping to make a strong showing in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Given that fact, it would be political suicide for any of the Republican frontrunners to oppose the current course in Iraq or President Bush's plan to secure victory in the country. (These numbers also suggest little room in the Republican nominating contest for a candidate who is calling for a change of direction in Iraq -- a point we made in the recent case against Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.)

Second, even among those who believe the United States has done a bad job in Iraq, President Bush -- and Bush alone -- bears considerable blame. The strong belief that the war is primarily Bush's doing (and fault) provides a glimmer of hope for Republicans hoping to hold the White House in 2008. If the American public primarily blames Bush and not the wider Republican party for the problems in Iraq, voters may not punish the eventual GOP nominee. While this may be a bit of wishful thinking, it does provide empirical evidence that Bush owns this war in the eyes of the American voter.

So, expect McCain, Romney and Giuliani to keep offering words of support for the policy in Iraq in hopes of wooing those "hard" Republicans who still believe America is doing a good job in the country. But don't expect any of the candidates to link themselves too closely to President Bush for fear of alienating the voters who see the problems in Iraq as solely the commander in chief's doing.

It's a delicate line to walk for these candidates -- be supportive but not too supportive.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 21, 2007; 7:15 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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