April 30, 2003

To the Victor Go the Polls

Remember the “smoking gun” that Americans demanded before they lent their support to a possible war with Iraq? The smoking gun ­ proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ­ is not nearly as important now that the war is over. A recent Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans believe the war can be justified even if weapons of mass destruction are not uncovered. Just 38% held that view as the war began in late March.

Most Americans, however, remain confident that the U.S. will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to a CBS News Poll. Indeed, 68% say they are not surprised that no chemical weapons have been found so far. And both the Pew Research Center and Gallup report majorities believe that success in the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism and made the country safer from terrorism, despite no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction.

Gallup also finds a soaring increase in the percentage of Americans who think the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism; 65% held that opinion in late April, compared with about 35% on average in numerous surveys taken before the war’s start.

Saddam Hussein is still viewed as a problem – most Americans think he is still alive. Further, Pew found a plurality thinks it is necessary to kill or capture him in order to “win the war.” That may help explain why fully 63% told Gallup as recently as last week that the war is not over yet.

In the afterglow of victory, Gen. Tommy Franks’ star shines the brightest to the public. An April 22-23 poll by Fox News found 82% approving of the Iraq war commander’s performance, with just 6% disapproving. This was much better than the ratings for Franks’ boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (67% approve/19% disapprove). Secretary of State Colin Powell also got a better evaluation than his cabinet rival (82%-11%).

By these standards, the president got a relatively modest 71% to 22% evaluation for his handling of the war in the latest Fox News poll. But perhaps more chilling for the White House is the potential impact of the war ­ or the lack of it ­ on voting decisions in 2004. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Fox poll (65%) said a candidate’s position on the economy and taxes will be a more important consideration in deciding who to vote for, compared with 10% who said a candidate’s position on the war in Iraq will be more important.