April 3, 2003

War Concerns Grow, But Support Remains Steadfast

Overcovered: Protesters, Ex-Generals

Summary of Findings

Public support for the war in Iraq remains steadfast in the face of increasing worries about the current military situation and America’s role in rebuilding Iraq after the war. A growing number of Americans are expressing concern that U.S. forces might suffer major casualties or face attack with Iraqi chemical or biological weapons.

Worries about a lengthy military commitment in the region also have risen over the past two weeks, and as many Americans now express a “great deal” of concern about this as have a high level of concern about the war leading to terrorism in the U.S. (42% and 39%, respectively). And a third of Americans say they worry a great deal that the conflict in Iraq could spark an all-out war in the Middle East.

Yet support for the decision to go to war has remained steady at about seven-in-ten since the fighting began. And despite the nervousness over a lengthy post-war role for U.S. troops, support for a major American effort to rebuild Iraq after the war has increased significantly over the past few months. Seven-in-ten (71%) now favor a major post-war operation to rebuild the country and establish a stable government, up from 63% in February and 60% in October.

Public support for a major effort to rebuild Iraq is very strong among those who think the U.S. made the right decision to use military force (82%). But even among those who think it was the wrong decision, a 59% majority supports a postwar effort to help Iraq recover. Republicans are more supportive than Democrats of the rebuilding effort (80% vs. 65%), with independents falling in between (73%).

Less Economic Gloom, Criticism of Bush

The survey also shows signs that Americans are more upbeat about their personal finances and somewhat more patient with President Bush’s efforts to revive the weak economy. More than half of Americans (53%) give their personal financial situation a positive rating (10% excellent, 43% good). In January, 45% had a favorable view of their finances (7% excellent, 38% good). The uptick occurred among most demographic and political groups, though it has been greater among Republicans (up 14 points) than among Democrats (up 6 points).

But optimism about family finances has not increased. In the current poll, 12% say they expect their financial situation to improve a lot over the course of the next year, while 51% expect it to improve some. In January, 9% expected a lot of improvement and 51% expected some improvement. By contrast, the first Persian Gulf War had a much greater impact on feelings of economic optimism. The number who expected their finances to improve jumped 16 percentage points from a Gallup poll taken in early January 1991, before the start of the Gulf War, to one taken in mid-February, shortly before the allies’ ground assault.

The public also is no more optimistic about the national economy than it was in January. Currently, just a third of the public thinks the U.S. economy will be better a year from now, while nearly a quarter (23%) think it will be worse. These numbers are essentially unchanged from January.

Despite these mixed economic views, President Bush is getting somewhat better marks for his concern for the economy. Currently, 41% say the president is doing all he can to improve economic conditions, up from 33% in January; 52% say he could be doing more, down from 61% three months ago. But this may be mostly a reflection of the overall improvement in the president’s job approval ratings as a result of the war (71% overall approval, up from 55% in mid-March and 58% in January).

Roll Back Tax Cuts to Finance War

The public continues to express an unwillingness to make a “guns for butter” tradeoff in paying for the war in Iraq. When offered a choice of three alternatives for financing the U.S. military effort, a 40% plurality says that last year’s tax cuts should be postponed or reduced; 20% favor adding to the budget deficit; and just 16% support scaling back spending on domestic programs.

Even among Republicans, delaying or reducing the size of the tax cut is the preferred option; a third of Republicans (34%) would postpone the tax cut compared with 23% who favor cutting domestic programs. Conservative Republicans are more evenly split, with at least as many in favor of deferring the tax cut (31%) as reducing domestic spending (27%). Among all groups, support for postponing or reducing the tax cut is greatest among college graduates (55%) and union households (57%).

Public Reactions to War Stabilize

While worries about the war have increased, public appraisals of the war and emotional reactions to it have become less volatile. Pew’s tracking survey of more than 2,700 Americans, conducted from March 20 to April 1, shows that public perceptions of the war, which fluctuated wildly in the opening days of the war, have settled down. In recent days (March 28-April 1), about four-in-ten Americans (39%) said the war was going very well. That marked little change from the previous period (March 23-27), when 42% felt the war was going very well. As many as 65% believed this during the first few days of the war, when American forces encountered little resistance and there was widespread speculation that Saddam Hussein might have been injured or killed in the March 19 air strike on Baghdad (See “Public Confidence in War Effort Falters,” March 25, 2003).

Similarly, the latest round of polling shows that emotional reactions to the war have also stabilized. The percentage who say they have been depressed by the war grew from 30% in the first two days of the war to 40% by March 25-27; it has remained at about that level since then. Levels of reported depression are lower than during the first phase of the Persian Gulf War (50% reported being depressed by the war), and much lower than in the aftermath of Sept. 11 (71%). Other emotional responses to the war have also remained stable in recent days, including sadness, fright, and fatigue.

Polling over the past 10 days (since March 23) has found that Republicans and Democrats look at the same war very differently. Conservative Republicans especially are upbeat, with 61% saying the war is going very well, and nearly half of moderate to liberal Republicans (47%) agree. But just a third (32%) of conservative to moderate Democrats share this view, and only 27% of liberal Democrats think things are going very well.

President Bush’s overall rating, and perceptions of his handling of the war, have remained stable since the start of the conflict. Since the war began, the president’s job approval rating has consistently measured at about 70%, up from 55% in the final pre-war survey (March 13-16). His job approval on the war is at the same level. And 64% of Americans say the president has done an excellent (28%) or good (36%) job in speaking to the nation about the war in Iraq.

War Views: Larger Race-Gender Gap

There are notable demographic, educational and political differences over the war evident in the survey. Substantial majorities of men in every age group ­ no fewer than seven-in-ten ­ think it was the right decision to go to war. Opinion among women varies widely by age, with the oldest and youngest women least likely to support the war. Only about half of women age 75 and older ­ and a similar proportion of those below the age of 25 (52%)­ back the decision to go to war. Among women in all other age groups, at least six-in-ten agree with that decision.

As was the case prior to the war’s start, there are starkly different views of military action across racial and ethnic lines. While whites believe taking action in Iraq was the right thing to do by more than four-to-one (77% to 18%), blacks are evenly divided over the question. Two-thirds of Hispanic respondents say going to war was the right decision, while a quarter disagree.

The gender gap also varies across racial groups, as minority women express some of the strongest antiwar sentiment of all demographic groups. Among white respondents, women are 10% less likely than men to say that military action was the right thing to do (72% compared with 82% of men). There is a much larger gap between black women and black men over the issue ­ just one-in-three black women think war was the right choice, compared with 57% of black men (a 24-point gender gap). A similar gap is seen between Hispanic women (57% right decision) and men (78%).

The gender gap in support for war in Iraq is especially large among the youngest and oldest respondents. In the youngest group ­ ages 18-24 ­ just over half of women (52%) say the U.S. made the right decision in going to war, while 82% of men feel this way (a gap of 30 points). And among those ages 25-29, the gap is 21 points (men 85%, women 64%). At the other end of the age spectrum, there also is a large gender gap (23 points). More than seven-in-ten men (73%) age 75 and older say the U.S. made the right decision, compared with only 50% of women. But unlike the youngest women, 44% of whom think war was the wrong decision, older women are no more opposed to military action than their male counterparts. Women age 75 and older are simply much less likely than men to express an opinion about the war at all.

Southerners Most Supportive of War

There also are sharp regional differences in war attitudes. Southerners are by far the most supportive of the decision to go to war, with 77% saying it was the right choice and just 18% disagreeing. Support is somewhat softer in the Midwest and West, and as few as 66% of residents of the Northeast believe that taking military action was the correct decision, while 27% say it was not.

Urban residents are also less supportive of military action than those in rural areas. Fully 79% of residents of rural areas say military action was the right decision, compared with 62% of those who live in large cities.

These regional disparities persist even when the different racial makeup of the regions is taken into account. Southern whites, for example, express some of the strongest support for military action (83% right decision, 13% wrong) while whites living in the Northeast and West are less supportive (72% right decision, 22% wrong).

War Rally Limited Among College Grads

While the public has rallied behind President Bush’s decision to initiate military action in Iraq, the size and scope of that rally have been somewhat limited. In particular, college-educated Americans have not rallied behind Bush’s decision to the same degree as those with less education.

Roughly six-in-ten college graduates (63%) believe going to war was the right decision. That is not much different from the opinion of college graduates in the months before the war began, when 59% favored military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The start of the war has had a greater impact on those with less education. Three-quarters of those with a high school education (75%) agree with the decision to go to war, compared with 65% who backed military action prior to the start of the conflict.

Higher levels of opposition among better-educated Americans are not linked to greater concerns about the costs and consequences of the war. College graduates are generally less worried than people with less education over the potential for high military casualties, the use of chemical or biological weapons by Iraqi forces, or the possibility of all-out war in the Middle East.

These educational differences over the war were not evident in the first Persian Gulf conflict, when college graduates and those who never attended college were equally likely to say that military action in Iraq was the right decision (77% to 76%, respectively). Today, high school graduates feel about the same about the war in Iraq as their counterparts did 12 years ago (75% think it was the right decision, 18% do not), but college graduates are significantly less supportive of the decision to go to war.

A Partisan Rally

The long-standing partisan divide over taking military action in Iraq has been evident in reactions to the war (See “Public Confidence in War Effort Falters”). This also can be seen in how different partisan and ideological groups have rallied behind the war.

Republicans ­ both conservatives and moderates ­ have rallied from their already strong support for military action to the nearly unanimous view that the decision to go to war was the right one. The views of Democrats on this issue, by comparison, have remained largely unchanged. Before the war, roughly a third of moderate-to-conservative Democrats opposed military action in Iraq, as did roughly half (53%) of liberal Democrats. Both of these figures have remained virtually unchanged since the war began.

Veterans Not So Different from Non-Veterans

Male veterans of military service have remarkably similar views of the conflict in Iraq when compared with non-veterans. This is true for opinions about whether the U.S. made the right decision to take military action, the president’s handling of the war, how well the war is going, and extends even to worries about casualties and other potential problems. Only among men age 50 and older is there a slight difference over the war, with 77% of veterans saying the U.S. made the right decision compared to 71% of non-veterans. Similar differences are seen on evaluations of how Bush is dealing with the war.

Catholics More Supportive, Seculars Unchanged

Before the war, white Catholics and mainline Protestants were equally supportive of military action. Two-thirds of both groups favored using military force in Iraq, which placed them well behind white evangelical Protestants (79% support). But since the war began, Catholics have become much more supportive of the decision to take military action and their views are closer to the evangelicals. Fully 81% of white Catholics believe it was the right decision, up from 67% who favored action in the months preceding the war. White evangelicals, already very supportive before the war (79% favored) have become even more supportive (87% right decision).

But among mainline Protestants and those without a religious affiliation, views on the war in Iraq have not changed substantially. Prior to the war, two-thirds of white mainline Protestants favored military action; today 70% think this was the right decision. And six-in-ten seculars continue to support the war in Iraq, while about a third believe it was the wrong decision.