March 25, 2003

Public Confidence In War Effort Falters

But Support for War Holds Steady

Introduction and Summary

Over the past two days the American public has become much less confident that the war in Iraq is going well, but large majorities continue to support President Bush and the decision to go to war. Polling on March 23-24 finds significantly fewer Americans thinking the war is going very well compared to surveys conducted March 20-22.

The percentage of the public thinking the war was going very well was as high as 71% on Friday and Saturday, only to fall to 52% on Sunday and 38% Monday as the public learned of American casualties and POW’s. Overall, the interviews by Sunday and Monday found about as many people thinking the war effort was going just fairly well (41%) as opposed to very well (45%). Only 8% went as far as to say the war effort was not going well.

But there are no indications that declining optimism about progress in the war is affecting overall support for military action or President Bush’s handling of the conflict. Roughly seven-in-ten Americans say it was the right decision to use military force against Iraq, a figure that remained fairly stable during the polling period. And about the same number (71%) give the president positive marks for his handling of the war.

The Pew Research Center’s five-day survey, conducted March 20-24 among 1,495 people, found a slight increase in the numbers of people reporting feelings of sadness and depression at the end of the polling period. Still, the emotional impact from the war to date is far less than during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.

There also has been growing public antagonism toward anti-war voices. Fully 45% of respondents in recent days have said the have heard too much from those who oppose the war, an increase from 37% during the survey’s first three days. Last month, only about a quarter of Americans (24%) said they were hearing too much from war opponents.

Public attention to news coverage of the war is on par with interest in the first Gulf War. Television ­ especially cable news ­ is the dominant source of war news for the vast majority of Americans. The public generally gives the media good marks for that coverage. About eight-in-ten (79%) rate war coverage as good or excellent, roughly the same number as during the first Iraq war. But war supporters give the media better marks than do war opponents; fully 83% of those who think it was the right decision to go to war characterize the coverage as good or excellent, compared with two-thirds of war opponents.

The survey also shows that partisan and ideological differences over using force in Iraq, which were apparent during the weeks leading up to war, are still present now that the conflict has begun. In fact, the partisan gap over the war is greater now than during the first Persian Gulf War.

Nine-in-ten Republicans (92%) think it was the right decision to go to war, compared with 58% of Democrats. In late January 1991 Republican support for the war was comparable (89%) while more Democrats felt it was the right decision to go to war (66%).

Ideological Split Over Bush, War

The president’s ratings have improved sharply since earlier this month, reflecting a ‘rally-around’ effect that traditionally occurs when the U.S. goes to war. Two-thirds approve of the president’s performance, while roughly a quarter (26%) disapprove. In the week leading up to the war (March 13-16), 55% approved of Bush’s job performance and 34% disapproved.

Overall, seven-in-ten Americans (72%) believe the decision to take military action against Iraq was correct, while 22% think it was the wrong decision. During the early phase of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, slightly more Americans (77%) felt the U.S. had made the right decision in attacking Iraq.

And generally, Americans support that step because they feel going to war is the best thing for the U.S., not because they are uncertain about war but back Bush’s decision as president. Half the public says they support war because they think it was the right thing to do, while far fewer (18%) support it out of loyalty to the president.

Liberal Democrats are the only ideological or demographic group in which a majority believes the United States made the wrong decision to use military force in Iraq. Most liberal Democrats (54%) think the United States made the wrong decision to attack Iraq, while 42% believe it was the right decision.

The president also gets high marks for his handling of the war ­ 71% approval, up from 56% who backed his handling of the situation in Iraq in February. Yet the public remains sharply divided along partisan and ideological lines over the president’s performance, and these differences are present in opinion on whether the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq. Liberal Democrats stand out ­ not only for their strong opposition to Bush, but also in their negative reaction to the decision to go to war.

The president continues to win overwhelming support from his GOP base. Roughly nine-in-ten conservative and moderate-to-liberal Republicans support Bush’s overall performance and his handling of the war in Iraq. Conservative Republicans are nearly unanimous in their positive assessments of the president and his handling of the war (95% each). Moderate Republicans are only slightly less supportive of the president (90%).

Conservative and moderate Democrats also broadly back the president and his handling of the war (55% overall, 62% war). The president’s popularity among these Democrats has risen sharply as a result of the war. In the March 13-16 survey, just 35% of conservative and moderate Democrats approved of the president’s overall job performance.

But the start of the war in Iraq has done nothing to improve the president’s standing among liberal Democrats. By nearly two-to-one, they disapprove of his overall job performance (63%-33%), and they give him negative marks for his handling of the war (57% disapprove, 41% approve).

For the most part, the same patterns of opinion that existed during the debate over military action persist now that the war has begun. Men are more likely than women to say that the U.S. made the right decision to go to war (80% vs. 65%). And while whites overwhelmingly agree with the decision to strike at Iraq (77% right decision), African-Americans are divided (48% right decision/43% wrong decision).

Rally Effect Less Than in Gulf War

While the public has rallied behind the troops now that military action in Iraq has started, the extent of this rally effect is slightly smaller than was the case in January of 1991 at the outset of the Persian Gulf War. In the final pre-war Gallup poll at that time, 55% said they would favor the use of military force to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait if the situation did not change by the Jan. 15 deadline, while 38% opposed military action. Two weeks later, 77% said they thought the U.S. made the right decision to use force in Iraq, a 22-point gain.

In the final pre-war Pew survey this year, support for military action was marginally higher than in 1991 (59% in favor, 30% opposed). Today, 72% think the U.S. did the right thing in using force, a 13-point rally from two weeks ago.

Fewer Want to Hear from War Opponents

With the start of hostilities in Iraq, there has been a marked decline in the number of people who say they have heard too little from war opponents. Just 17% say they have heard too little from those opposed to military action, while more than twice as many (40%) say they have heard too much from war opponents. These numbers reflect a turnaround from last month when only a quarter (24%) said they were hearing too much and fully 42% wanted to hear more from anti-war Americans.

Rising resistance to the views of dissenters was also seen in the Persian Gulf War, when the percentage saying they had heard too much from opponents of the war rose from 18% before the start of hostilities to 47% at the end of January 1991. Republicans much more often than Democrats or independents say they have heard too much from the opposition. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (57%) feel that way now, up from 35% in February. Less than a third of Democrats (31%) and only 36% of independents say they have heard too much from war critics (up from 18% and 22% respectively).

Public Attention on Par With ’91, Not 9/11

Most of the public is following news about the war ­ 57% say they are following very closely and 33% are following somewhat closely. This is comparable to levels of attention seen prior to the start of the war, and to the degree of public interest in news about the Persian Gulf War shortly after it started in January 1991. But public attention is considerably lower than in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when 74% were following the story very closely.

Republicans are paying more attention to the war than are Democrats or independents: 68% of Republicans say they are following the news very closely, compared with 55% of Democrats and 51% of independents.

Still, a big majority of the public is keeping tuned to television and radio news about Iraq: 69% are doing this, only 12 percentage points below the levels seen after 9/11 and the start of the Persian Gulf War. Three-in-ten say they have been reading the newspaper more since the war started (with younger people ­ 38% among those aged 18-29 ­ especially likely to report this). This compares to 51% who said they were doing this in January 1991, and 46% after Sept.11. Just 10% say they are checking the Internet now more than before the war started (compared with 33% who did this just after 9/11).

TV Still Dominant News Source

Most Americans first heard about the start of the war in Iraq from television, and most are getting the bulk of their war news from television. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) were alerted to the start of the war by television, with 38% mentioning cable TV news, 22% network news, and 11% local TV news. Just 12% first heard about the war on the radio, and 8% heard it from talking with others. In contrast, Americans had heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks ­ which occurred as a workday was getting under way, rather than during the evening prime-time hours ­ from a wider range of sources.

Since the war got underway, nearly nine-in-ten (89%) mention television as their main source for news, with half (50%) specifically mentioning cable news, 24% citing network news, and 18% mentioning local TV news. About one-fourth (24%) say they are depending on newspapers, 19% cite radio, and 11% are relying primarily on the Internet.

Favorable View of Coverage

The public gives generally good marks to the press coverage of the war thus far, with 79% favorable overall (39% say coverage has been excellent, and 40% say it has been good). Only 16% give news organizations bad grades marks (12% only fair, 4% poor).

Supporters of the war give the press higher marks than opponents: 43% of the war’s backers say the press is doing an excellent job, compared with only 27% of those who think the U.S. made the wrong decision to go to war.

So Far Emotional Fallout Less Than ’91

Even though the war has taken a somewhat greater psychological toll of the war on Americans in the past 2 days, it has been relatively muted when compared with the Persian Gulf War, and especially with aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Roughly a third (32%) say they have felt depressed by the war in Iraq, compared with half who said this in the early days of the Gulf War in 1991, and 71% who reported feeling depressed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Fewer also say they have had trouble concentrating on work and daily activities, or trouble sleeping as a result of the current engagement in Iraq. Overall, 14% say they have had trouble concentrating, and 10% say they have both felt depressed and are unable to concentrate on daily activities. In the days following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. fully 42% expressed both feelings of depression and an inability to focus.

There are signs, however, that as the war continues and casualties mount, the psychological toll may grow. The percent saying the war has made them feel depressed rose to 35% on Sunday and Monday, from 30% from Thursday through Saturday. This would be in stark contrast to the period following Sept. 11, when the intense emotional aftershocks faded as every week passed.

Women, War Opponents More Depressed

As in past traumatic national events, there is a significant gender gap in expressions of depression. Women are twice as likely as men (42% to 21%) to say the war has made them feel depressed. This was also the case in 1991 (64% to 33%) and after 9/11 (79% to 62%) as well.

Opponents of war also feel significantly more depressed by the war. Nearly half (49%) of those who think military action in Iraq was the wrong decision say they are depressed by the war, compared to just 24% of those who think it was the right decision. Along those same lines, Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans (43% to 22%) to say the war makes them feel depressed.

Most Americans (59%) say watching news coverage of the war on TV makes them feel sad, however again, this is far less common than in previous times of conflict. Three-quarters said news coverage saddened them in January 1991, and more than nine-in-ten said this in September 2001.

Somewhat fewer (48%) reported that watching TV coverage was frightening or that they feel they must be constantly tuned in (40%). Both reactions are significantly less widespread than in either 1991 or 2001. One-in-three say watching TV coverage of the war tires them out, and 26% say the war on TV doesn’t seem quite real.

No Major Changes in Plans

Most people report thus far that the war has not led to changes in travel plans or additional steps to prepare their homes for an emergency situation. And compared with the Persian Gulf War and the aftermath or 9/11, fewer people say that they are praying more.

Just one-in-ten Americans say they are considering canceling an airplane trip or a visit to a major city as a result of the onset of war. These are comparable to changes in travel plans reported by Americans shortly after the Persian Gulf War started (then, 14% considered canceling an airplane trip and 11% a trip to a major city). By comparison, 9/11 had a bigger impact. In mid-September 2001, 24% reported that they were considering canceling an airplane trip and one-fifth (21%) canceling a trip to a major city.

One in five Americans (19%) say they have taken steps to prepare their home for an emergency by storing supplies or creating a protected area for the family, a number similar to that seen last month after the government’s official threat level was raised (23%), and also comparable to reported activity shortly after September 11, 2001 (22%).

Just over half of the public (53%) reports that they are praying more since the war began. This is lower than the level of increased prayer seen after the beginning of the Persian Gulf War (65%) and 9/11 (69%), and slightly greater than the level seen at the start of the war in Afghanistan (44%). But there are big differences on this question between men and women: nearly two-thirds of women (66%) say they are praying more, compared with only 39% of men.

Worries Rise as War Proceeds

With the war in its early phases, the public feels somewhat more optimistic about its possible costs and consequences than they did before the conflict began. But concerns over high levels of U.S. military casualties and the prospect that U.S. forces may face attacks from chemical and biological weapons edged back up as U.S. forces approached Baghdad.

Overall, fewer Americans are very worried that U.S. troops might sustain a lot of casualties than in February (38% now, 55% in February). But concern over possible casualties increased significantly after reports that U.S. soldiers were killed or missing. Public worries about the prospect of chemical and biological attacks on U.S. forces followed a similar pattern.

Worries about terrorist attacks on the United States have remained relatively modest, despite the return to a “code orange” level of alert by the Department of Homeland Security. About a third (35%) of Americans say they are very worried that terrorists might strike within the U.S., down from 57% during February’s heightened terrorist alert. Just 9% say they are very worried they or someone in their family might become a victim of a terrorist attack, down from 22% a month ago.

Cite this publication: “Public Confidence In War Effort Falters.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 25, 2003) http://www.people-press.org/2003/03/25/public-confidence-in-war-effort-falters/, accessed on July 22, 2014.