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June 30, 2005

Iraq the Vote

A small world story:   On the front page of today's Washington Post, Peter Baker and Dan Balz write about the influence of "an extensive study of public opinion" in guiding the Bush Administration strategy for support for the Iraq war:

The White House recently brought onto its staff one of the nation's top academic experts on public opinion during wartime, whose studies are now helping Bush craft his message two years into a war with no easy end in sight. Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won.

MP had two immediate reactions.  First, that this story would make a perfect MP topic, focusing as it does on the nexus between public opinion and political strategy.  Second, though MP fancies himself as reasonably familiar with the "top academic experts in public opinion," he had never heard of Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, the two Duke University political scientists Balz wrote about.   Or so he thought.

But then MP did a bit of searching and discovered that Feaver and Gelpi have a third author on their paper, a Duke PhD candidate named Jason Reifler who will soon join the faculty of Loyola University in Chicago. 

The small world part:  Jason Reifler used to work for MP.  Jason was a guest at MP's wedding.  In fact, Jason sent an early version of their research to MP back in the blur that was October, something that, sadly, MP never got around to reading.


So starting this afternoon, MP will correct that mistake and review the voluminous work of Gelpi, Reifler and Feaver.  For now, few quick things that will interest MP's readers:

First, here are links to PDF versions of the two papers the authors have put on their websites:

Second, for those who would rather not wade through 100+ pages of academic research, here is the money quote from the "Iraq the Vote" paper:

We argue that the willingness of the public to pay the costs of war and to reelect incumbent Presidents during wartime are dependent on the interaction of two attitudes - one retrospective and one prospective. In particular, we show that retrospective evaluations of whether President Bush "did the right thing" in attacking Iraq and prospective judgments about whether the U.S. will ultimately be successful in Iraq are two critical attitudes for understanding how foreign policy judgments affect vote choice and one's tolerance for casualties. Further, we show that the retrospective judgments serve as a more powerful predictor for vote choice, while the prospective evaluations of mission success better predict continued support for the war in Iraq. These claims are consistent with the broader literature on how foreign policy influences voting behavior, and the literature that examines the public's response to war and casualties. However, we also show that these retrospective and prospective judgments are interactive, and that a person's attitude on one conditions the effect of the other. This interaction operates on "political" support (vote choice) as well as mission" support (casualty tolerance).

Third, the full text of the two key questions Gelpi, Feaver and Reifler use in their analysis:

We would like to know whether you think President Bush did the right thing by using military force against Iraq. Would you say that you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove of his decision?

Regardless of whether you think that the President did the right thing, would you say that the U.S. is very likely succeed in Iraq, somewhat likely to succeed, not very likely to succeed, or not at all likely to succeed?

Finally, this thought:   Several public pollsters have asked variations of the question about whether the US "did the right thing" in attacking Iraq.  However, MP has yet to find a public polls that track prospective judgments about the likelihood of prevailing in Iraq.   Perhaps he has overlooked something obvious, but MP hopes the Baker & Balz article will prompt a public pollster or two to add such an item to their surveys and provide their own independent assessments of the Gelpi-Feaver-Reifler thesis.

More later . . .

UPDATE:  CBS takes up the challenge

Related Entries - Polls in the News

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on June 30, 2005 at 02:35 PM in Polls in the News | Permalink



I would tickle Claudia with the suggestion, but I think she's tiring of my occasional mails, so I am going to leave her be for a while. :-)

Posted by: Gerry | Jun 30, 2005 3:09:21 PM

There's another issue that effects the polling results, but is not included in the questions: Do you think Bush is competent to achive our goals in Iraq?

Posted by: armand | Jun 30, 2005 4:12:52 PM

There's a huge body of research on prospective and retrospective evaluations of the economy and their political consequences; by and large, however, folks haven't applied the same framework to studying public opinion and war.

Erik Voeten and I have done some research on retrospective evaluations of the war in Iraq and GWB's approval rating--not exactly what FGR are talking about, but a related topic. The short version (so far):

1) events and casualties account for considerable variation in perceptions of the war’s success but not for much variation in support for the war.

(2) shifts in war support account for shifts in presidential approval ratings better than do shifts in perceived war success or even shifts in Bush’s job approval on Iraq.

Posted by: Paul Brewer | Jun 30, 2005 4:30:48 PM

To follow up on Paul’s comments, what the research on economic voting shows, by and large, is that people’s prospective judgments about the economy are driven by their political views. Thus prospective judgments are caused by people’s vote choice, not the other way around. Similarly, we might argue that people’s prospective evaluations of war success are determined by their views on Iraq, not the other way around, as GRF maintain. There are other issues as well. Economic success and war success are – in theory – fixed objective indicators. Either the economy is doing well, or it isn’t; and either the war is going well, or it isn’t. What meaning then, are we to make of cross-sectional variation in these measures?

BTW, for a nice (but technical) discussion of the economic voting literature, see this paper by Bob Erikson of Columbia, here:


I ran a survey last summer where I included the GRF “war success” question. I was interested in other topics, but – as I report in footnotes and the appendix to my paper (link below) – as we would expect from the economic voting literature, I believe that the war success variable is just another indicator of war support – an endogenous variable, in regression-speak.

This is not to say that GRF are wrong – I think that this is an interesting approach for looking at over-time data and I think their discussion of Vietnam is quite nice. But I think that as an explanation for differences in opinion at a single moment in time, there are some problems.

Here is a link to my paper (which has a discussion of the war in Iraq as well as World War II).


Posted by: Adam Berinsky | Jun 30, 2005 8:49:49 PM

I have heard of, and communicated once with, Dr. Feaver. He is one of the better known people when it comes to voting behavior of veterans--a curious gap in the empirical literature, I understand. Although I confess that I tracked him down as the result of an AP story, so take that for what it's worth.

As I look at their 'right thing' question, I can't help but wonder why they turned that into an approval scale. Isn't it a fairly straightforward question setup? Would you say President Bush did the right thing in using military force against Iraq, or was it the wrong thing?


At what point on the right thing/wrong thing axis does "somewhat approve" cross? There is a substantive difference, IMO, between approving of someone's decision after the fact, and being asked to evaluate whether it was the right choice to begin with. The tense of the question is different from the answer, if you get my drift.

Yes, well. Thank you.

Posted by: torridjoe | Jul 1, 2005 3:55:07 AM

It is quite simple: for the past 6000 years, societies have been destroyed when they lost critical wars. They lost wars mostly because their people did not have the will to follow through (maintain public opinion) or prepare (investing in technology and more children beforehand counts as preparing). Americans, like failed societies before them, have taken on the fatal idea that it is OK to lose this war. They even took on the fatal idea that this war was debatable. It wasn't. There were 10 really good reasons to liberate the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. We needed to start changing the Middle East somewhere or the 9-11 attacks would have been just the beginning.

Posted by: Jennifer Peterson | Jul 1, 2005 8:20:06 AM

adam, go to see you here. Paul, I've admired your work from afar.

I have a paper that pretty much lands in the middle of adam and fever. Some events do have meaning, directly. On the whole, though, these aren't the data/facts that prior studies assumed mattered. casualty estimates, for example, are almost purely random guesses, and in turn, do not explain war opinions. If anything, casualty estimates are a product of war support/bush support and casualty tolerance. Even then, these variables barely explain estimates (r-square of about .02). Yet, american casualties read in a news story do matter. When I present just the number of american GI deaths, bush "haters" sour on the war. When these same news stories include body count ratios--insurgents killed--bush supporters think the war is going better. Notice that contrary information is discarded by the bush lovers and haters, and reafirrming information has an effect. Motivated reasoning! Importantly, the battle reports do not include rhetorical frames by elites. I only present the deaths....

more later....sorry for the hurry and I'm sure typos...


Posted by: mike cobb | Jul 1, 2005 9:11:26 AM

People re-elect leaders who they believe make good decisions and only advocate wars that they think they will win. That seems pretty logical to me.

Posted by: LankyB | Jul 1, 2005 9:14:54 AM

Armand, Bush sets the goals for Iraq, he delegates the achievement to State, Defense and assorted others.

Posted by: Abu Qa'Qa | Jul 1, 2005 10:12:13 AM

Armand, Bush sets the goals for Iraq, he delegates the achievement to State, Defense and assorted others.

Posted by: Abu Qa'Qa | Jul 1, 2005 10:14:45 AM

Sorry for the double post. I got an error and reposted.

Posted by: Abu Qa'Qa | Jul 1, 2005 10:16:09 AM

Armand asks an important question, though he frames it in a way which tells you his answer to it.

It would have been interesting during the campaign to ask "Do you think Bush is competent to achive his goals in Iraq?" and "Do you think Kerry is competent to achive his goals in Iraq?".

My particular responses would be yes, and "I'm not sure what his goals in Iraq are, but, no.".

Posted by: Anthony | Jul 1, 2005 11:12:31 AM

I recall me a discussion in, oh, the fall of 2002, with some people whose position was along the lines that yes, we did need to fight back against terrorists and Arab enabling of terrorism, and yes, deposing Saddam Hussein was an important strategic part of that, which seemed to mean going to war in Iraq... but "not with a Republican president". They could, they said, support such a thing were a Democrat in office.

To which I said, well, we don't *have* a Democratic president at the moment and may well not have one for another six or ten years. We have what we have. Partisan alignments are as they are. The question isn't whether you'd support this action if we had a Dem president or at least a non-Bush president or if the moon was full or whatever. The question is "do you support this action or do you oppose it?"

Which is a longwinded way of saying that Armand's question strikes me as a way of having it both ways. "Oh, I would wholeheartedly support American actions in Iraq... if only Bush weren't president!" is not a position. It's an act of avoidance.

Posted by: jaed | Jul 1, 2005 12:49:19 PM

jaed: the number of Democrats who would have supported an invasion of Iraq if a Democrat was President approaches unity. Their only problem with the Iraq war is that it's making America rally behind a (gasp!) Republican.
That's why so many of them have publicly prayed for thousands of homebound bodybags counts and failure for the American forces.

Posted by: DaveP. | Jul 1, 2005 1:03:08 PM

Riefler's money quote reminds me of something I once told an ex-girlfriend:

"The most immoral war is the one you don't win."

I stand by those words, and evidently so do lots of other people.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn | Jul 1, 2005 3:06:23 PM

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