Watch the Polls

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This weeks “Off to the Races” column by Charlie Cook has an interesting theory on voters and Iraq:

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we’ve blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we’ve invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group — always against — makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group — those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause — includes about 20 percent. … The third group — those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us ‘cut and run’ — makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive.

Looking at things from a political standpoint—and with this administration, you can’t go too awry looking at things that way—these numbers put the GOP in a bit of a bind come the 2006 midterms, don’t they? As far as the war is concerned, those first two groups may never look kindly on Bush and his party for getting us into this Iraq debacle. (That doesn’t mean they’ll look kindly on Democrats who got us into this war either, but save that for later.) At this point, even a serious draw-down of troops early next year, as Gen. George Casey has suggested, even that might not bring Cooks’ group two—”those who were for it but now believe we’ve blown it”—back into the Republican fold. Although a draw-down might defuse enough anger and anxiety over the war that perhaps some voters from that group two could be persuaded to vote Republican over “moral values,” or whatever it is the kids are voting on these days. So who knows? Maybe the administration’s looked at the polls and is plotting a hasty withdrawal come 2006.

On the other hand, Bush has recently been suggesting that there will be absolutely no cutting and running on his bold and resolute watch. Now that means either three things: 1) he’s lying, and the administration’s already planning a hasty retreat come mid-2006, right in time for the elections; 2) Bush doesn’t care about the polls and really wants Iraq to succeed, and thinks he’s doing the right thing; or 3) deep in his secret lair, Karl Rove’s been running the numbers, and he truly believes that the only way to eke out a Republican victory in 2006 is to win over that third group of voters on Cook’s list—those that “are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed… yet still hate to see us ‘cut and run'”—by getting the president to stand firm. None of these options would surprise me, quite frankly, but I don’t think 3) is so outlandish that it’s not worth thinking about. To pretend that polls and popular opinion won’t effect what goes on in Iraq over the coming months seems, I think, a bit naive.

Meanwhile, as Billmon points out, all of those hawkish, pro-war Democrats you see on TV—Sen. Joseph Biden comes to mind—may be inadvertently undercutting this strategy by suggesting that the president isn’t really doing everything in his power to win the war in Iraq. So Biden’s call for more troops in Iraq may be wholly impractical, but if it puts Cook’s “group three” at ill-ease, then it’s not unwise politically. Of course, some of us have suggested that Bush wasn’t serious about this war from day one, but then, we’re not really the swing voters here, are we? At any rate, then there’s the question of how the Democrats are going to handle the 2006 elections; at the moment, they seem to be opting for neocon-lite, and as Billmon says, given the choice between neocon and neocon, voters will probably just pick the genuine article. And meanwhile, once we put the polls away and start thinking about more serious matters, no one seems to have any idea what to do on a policy level to stop Iraq from imploding. (Here is the most serious and considered suggestion I’ve heard, but it’s suitably bleak, so fair warning.) All in all, quite the disaster.


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