May 12, 2004

Iraq Prison Scandal Hits Home, But Most Reject Troop Pullout

Summary of Findings

Public satisfaction with national conditions has fallen to 33%, its lowest level in eight years, in the wake of revelations of prisoner abuse committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. President Bush’s overall job approval rating also has dropped into negative territory: 44% approve of his job performance, while 48% disapprove.

The Iraq prison scandal has registered powerfully with the public ­ fully 76% say they have seen pictures depicting mistreatment of Iraqis by U.S. soldiers. There also has been a sharp rise in the number of Americans who think the military effort in Iraq is going badly. For the first time, a majority of Americans (51%) say the war is not going well and the percentage saying the war was the right decision continues to inch downward. The survey was conducted before release of a videotape showing the decapitation of an American in Iraq.

For all that, however, public sentiment continues to run against an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. By 53%-42%, Americans favor keeping the troops there until a stable government is established. That number has changed little since early April, after four U.S. contractors were murdered and their bodies desecrated.

President Bush has lost some ground in the presidential race, though voter opinion remains closely divided. Sen. John Kerry holds a 50%-45% lead over Bush in a two-way race, and his lead narrows to 46%-43% when Ralph Nader is included. Most of the president’s supporters say they consider their vote as a choice for the president. By contrast, Kerry’s supporters by roughly two-to-one (32%-15%) view their vote as one against Bush.

But confidence in Bush relative to Kerry has eroded on major issues like Iraq and the economy. Bush holds a slight 44%-41% edge as the candidate better able to make wise decisions in Iraq policy; in late March, he held a 12-point advantage (49%-37%). At the same time, Kerry has opened up double-digit leads on both the economy and jobs. Kerry’s advantage on the key domestic issue of health care is even larger. Currently, 51% say Kerry would be better able to improve the health care system, while just 29% say that about Bush.

The latest national survey of 1,800 Americans, conducted May 3-9 by the Pew Research Center, finds that finds that Bush retains a sizable advantage over Kerry on key personal qualities relating to leadership and judgment in a crisis. Yet roughly a quarter (26%) say their overall impression of Bush has gotten worse in recent weeks, compared to 16% who say that about Kerry. And perceptions of Bush as steadfast and determined are proving to be a double-edged sword for the president: by 65%-23%, the public views Bush, rather than Kerry, as willing to take a stand, even if unpopular. By an even wider margin (68%-12%), Americans say the word “stubborn” applies to Bush.

The survey also highlights clear weaknesses in Kerry’s personal image. By 42%-30%, the public says the phrase “changes his mind too much” better describes the Massachusetts Democrat. That perception is reinforced in respondents’ one-word descriptions of the candidates. In February, as Kerry was sweeping through the Democratic primaries, positive descriptions outnumbered negative ones by two-to-one. Today, just 23% use a positive word to describe Kerry, while 28% describe him negatively. Among the most frequently used negative terms to characterize Kerry are “liar,” “dishonest” and “wishy-washy.”

Voters continue to express relatively strong interest in the presidential race. About six-in-ten (59%) say they have thought “quite a lot” about the campaign, up from 48% at this stage in 2000. Nearly half of voters (45%) say they are hearing the right amount about the campaign. But people in swing states, who have been exposed to millions of dollars in political ads from the campaigns, are somewhat more likely than people in “red states” (predominantly Republican) or “blue states (predominantly Democrat) to say they have heard too much about the presidential race. However, voters in the battleground states are about as interested in the campaign as those elsewhere.

Sober Assessments of Iraq

News of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel, coupled with continued unrest and violence throughout the country, have combined to send public assessments about the war to their lowest levels yet. Just 46% believe the war is going well, the first time that less than a majority of Americans have felt that things in Iraq were going at least “fairly well.”

Although a majority of the public (51%) continues to say that the U.S. made the right decision to use force in Iraq, this is the lowest level of confidence since the war began. The percentage believing the war was the wrong decision has now inched up to 42%, five points higher than it was just two weeks ago.

Views about the decision to go to war remain highly divided along partisan lines, with a 50-point gap separating the opinions of Republicans (80% of whom say the U.S. made the right decision) and Democrats (30%). A potentially ominous sign for President Bush is that the percentage of independents who think the U.S. was right to go to war has now dropped below 50% for the first time (48%).

Moreover, since January of this year, support for the decision has dropped dramatically among key swing constituencies: white Catholics (now 49%, down from 68%) and mainline Protestants (49%, down from 71%). But key elements of the president’s base remain solidly behind the decision to go to war. Republicans (at 80%) have dropped only six points since January, and white evangelicals (at 68%) are down only four points since January.

Assessments of how the war is going also have a partisan cast. Far more Republicans (70%) than Democrats (32%) say the war is going at least fairly well. Those who say they are certain to vote for Bush in November are even more sanguine about the war (78% going well), while about the same number of Kerry voters (75%) take a negative view of progress in Iraq. Male veterans have a somewhat more negative assessment of the war than non-veterans.

No Increase in Support for Withdrawal

Despite the prison abuse scandal and the recent surge in violence in Iraq, a majority of the public (53%) continues to support keeping troops in Iraq until a stable government is established; 42% say the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible. As on other questions, there is a significant partisan division on this question, with 72% of Republicans in favor of remaining in Iraq compared with only 40% of Democrats. Voters who are not yet firmly committed to one candidate or another divide about like the nation overall: 54% of swing voters support keeping troops in Iraq, 39% support a pullout.

There is also a considerable gender gap on the question, with a solid majority of men (62%) in favoring of remaining in Iraq, while women favor pulling out by a margin of 49% to 45%. Blacks (at 68%) tilt strongly toward withdrawing the troops, and young people (at 52%) are more likely than older people to favor bringing the troops home as quickly as possible.

Compared with less educated respondents, highly educated Americans express the greatest reservations about the decision to go to war. Yet they also express the strongest support for maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq.

Those with a college degree divide evenly (48% each) on the question of whether the war was the right decision, but by about two-to-one (63% to 31%) believe that the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until a stable government is established there. By contrast, people with a high school education generally support the decision to go to war, but are even
ly divided on the question of staying in or pulling out.

Prison Abuse: Huge Exposure

Public exposure to reports of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners has been widespread; 58% say they have heard a lot about this matter and 34% have heard a little. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (76%) say they have seen some of the pictures on which reports of mistreatment are based. This compares with 55% who said they had seen the graphic photos or video of the attack on U.S. civilian contractors in Falluja in early April.

But Some Say Too Much

A narrow plurality of the public (39%) believes news organizations have provided the right amount of coverage of the prison abuse story. But more than twice as many people say there has been too much (36%) coverage of the scandal as say there has been too little coverage (17%).

Opinion about the coverage divides along partisan lines. Half of Republicans say there has been too much press attention to the matter, but just 26% of Democrats agree. Independents fall in between (36%). A majority of male military veterans (52%) say there has been too much coverage of the story, compared with 36% of men who are not veterans.

With the disturbing images from Iraq’s prisons and continuing violence against coalition forces, some people have responded by becoming more emotionally involved in the news from Iraq while others have become less involved. In response to a question about how “people you know” are reacting to the news these days, 34% say their acquaintances have become more emotionally involved; 26% say people they know have become less involved; and 36% say they have seen no change.

About twice as many liberal Democrats as conservative Republicans say the people they know are more emotionally involved in the situation in Iraq (48% vs. 25%). Young people age 18-29 are most likely to say people they know are becoming less involved (39% say this, compared with 17% for people aged 65 and older).

Is Criticism of the War Patriotic?

Nearly half of Americans (49%) say that criticism of how the war is being handled is neither patriotic or unpatriotic, while the other half divides evenly on the question (22% say it is unpatriotic, 23% say it is patriotic). Not surprisingly, views about criticism are highly partisan and strongly related to views about the war itself, with 43% of conservative Republicans saying critics of the war are unpatriotic, while just 6% of liberal Democrats agree. Interestingly, more male veterans than non-veterans weigh in on either side of the patriotism debate, though there is no agreement on the issue: 27% of male veterans say such criticism is unpatriotic, while 31% view it as patriotic.

Those who say criticism of the handling of the war is either patriotic or unpatriotic were asked why they feel this way. Several themes run through comments by people who see criticism as unpatriotic. Many mention the need to support the troops, or the idea that criticism undermines their efforts. A typical comment was that criticism is wrong “because it’s a smack in the face to those boys over there.” Mentions of George W. Bush and the need to support the president in time of war were also very common. “I just think you should stand by what your president does. He wouldn’t send our boys to war to fight for our freedom for no reason,” said one respondent.

Those who said criticism is patriotic tended to stress the principle of freedom of speech. “Patriotism is your ability to disagree,” said one respondent. Another said that criticism is patriotic “because this country is founded on the idea that you can express opinions which are unpopular.” Many people said we need to hear the criticism in order to avoid costly mistakes. One person remarked that “knowing the truth will prevent another Vietnam.”

Bush’s Bad Weeks

The past few weeks have clearly been worse for Bush than for his Democratic opponent. His overall approval rating has softened a bit since late April. Moreover, about one-in-four Americans (26%) say their overall impression of the president has gotten worse over the past few weeks, while just 7% say their impression has improved. By comparison, impressions of John Kerry are mixed, with 16% saying he looks worse to them than he did a few weeks ago, and 12% saying he looks better.

The campaigns, for the most part, are reinforcing the impressions of those who have already made up their minds. Fully half of committed Kerry supporters say their impression of Bush has gotten worse in the past few weeks, and 37% of committed Bush supporters feel the same about Kerry. And while smaller minorities say their impressions of Bush and Kerry have improved recently, any improvement has come among committed backers. Somewhat fewer cite improvement in this area because many partisans say their impression couldn’t get any better than it already is, and thus has stayed the same.

Bush Approval Declines Among Swing Voters

By comparison, the vast majority of uncommitted voters say their impressions of Bush and Kerry have remained unchanged, and there is no difference in this regard within the all-important battleground states, where campaign advertisements have been running heavily. Just one-in-five swing voters (21%) say their impression of Bush has changed, though the trend has been decidedly for the worse (18% vs. 3%). A similar minority says Kerry’s image has changed, some for the worse (13%) and some for the better (9%).

Overall presidential job approval has slipped notably among these swing voters over the past few months. In February, twice as many swing voters approved as disapproved of the president’s overall job performance (by a 55% to 28% margin). Today, approval has slipped to 44%, and disapproval has grown to 38% among voters who are not committed to either candidate.

Divided Views of Bush

The current poll reflects unprecedented levels of partisanship with respect to evaluations of the president’s performance. As has been the case since Bush first took office, Republicans are solidly behind him, with 85% approving and just 11% disapproving of the job he is doing. But for the first time, Democrats are nearly as unified in opposition to Bush. Just 13% of Democrats approve of the president’s job performance, while 79% disapprove. Prior to this year, Democratic approval of Bush had never dipped below 23%.

Equally important, recent surveys have found Bush’s job approval among independents to be at an all-time low. In the current survey, as well as three other surveys conducted in late March and April, more independents disapprove of the president’s performance in office (49% currently) than approve (40%).

Terrorism Still Bush’s Strength

Most voters continue to favor Bush over Kerry when it comes to defending the country from future terrorism (52% Bush/33% Kerry). But that is the only policy issue on which the president holds a clear advantage over his Democratic opponent.

Republicans overwhelmingly back Bush on defending the U.S. against terrorism (and Democrats favor Kerry), while swing voters also line up squarely behind the president on this issue. By more than four-to-one (60%-14%), swing voters say Bush is better able than Kerry to handle the threat of terrorism.

On most other issues, however, the president has lost ground to Kerry since late March. The two men are in a virtual tie over who would be batter able to handle Iraq and foreign policy generally. In late March, swing voters by more than two-to-one (45%-21%) opted for Bush over Kerry as the candidate who could make wise decisions on Iraq. But the margin has narrowed considerably ­ currently, 41% of swing voters say Bush could do better on Iraq, while 32% say Kerry.

Kerry also has a substantial advantage with respect to who is better able to improve the health care system and education. Roughly half (51%) say Kerry could better handle health care; just 29% say Bush. And Kerry holds a substantial advantage in improving education (50%-35%). In the presidential campaign four years ago, Bush ran close to former Vice President Al Gore on education, helping to neutralize what had been a Democratic issue.

Personal Qualities: Two Sides of Bush

Voters continue to view Bush as a strong leader and possessing good judgment in a crisis. Roughly half of voters say these descriptions apply to Bush; only about a third say they better describe Kerry. Bush holds a significant advantage on these personal qualities among swing voters. More than half of swing voters (54%) view Bush as a strong leader; just 14% say that phrase better describes Kerry. Similarly, by four-to-one (53%-13%) swing voters view Bush, not Kerry, as using good judgment in a crisis.

Bush also is generally viewed as “willing to take a stand, even if unpopular.” However, fully two-thirds of voters (68%) also say the description “stubborn” better applies to Bush rather than Kerry. To a degree, these perceptions of Bush ­ both positive and negative ­ cut across party lines. A substantial minority of Democratic voters (41%) look at Bush as being willing to take an unpopular stand; roughly the same number of Democrats say that describes Kerry (44%). A solid majority of Republicans (57%) believes the term stubborn applies to Bush; just 20% say it better describes Kerry.

Kerry’s primary attribute is that he is seen as caring “about people like me.” A 45% plurality says that phrase better describes Kerry; 34% think it better describes Bush. While partisans divide in predictable fashion over who this phrase better describes, swing voters say it better characterizes Kerry by 37%-21%.

A substantial plurality of voters (42%) think the phrase “changes his mind too much” better describes Kerry; just 30% say it applies to Bush. There is a significant gender gap in these perceptions, especially among voters under age 50. Among men in this group, 48% believe Kerry changes his mind too much, while 34% say that about Bush. However, women voters under age 50 are split (32% Kerry/32% Bush).

Race Moves in a Narrow Range

Voting intentions remain closely divided, with registered voters favoring Kerry over Bush by a slim 50% to 45% margin. Preferences on both sides continue to be shaped predominantly by voters’ views of President Bush.

Nearly two-thirds of Kerry supporters (64%) describe their choice as more of a vote against George W. Bush than as a vote for John Kerry. There is little to suggest that affirmative support for Kerry is increasing. At the close of the Democratic primaries in March, 40% of Kerry voters expressed their support in positive terms, but this has declined to 30% today. Bush backers overwhelmingly describe their preference as a vote for the president, not against Kerry, by a 74% to 21% margin.

While the overall horse race has remained close since February, more voters are making up their minds, though Election Day is still more than five months away. In February, nearly three-in-ten voters (29%) were either undecided, only leaned toward one of the candidates, or supported a candidate but said they might still change their minds.

Today, just 22% of voters fall into these categories. Consequently, the proportion of voters who say they have already made up and will not change their minds has increased from 71% in February to 78% today. Both Kerry and Bush have gained committed supporters at roughly the same rate over this time period.

This level of commitment is no lower in the key battleground states in which both campaigns have been particularly active. As many voters in “swing” states have already made up their minds about who to support as is the case in “red” or “blue” states, though they are more evenly divided between the two candidates. Currently, 24% of voters in battleground states have not committed their support to a candidate (compared with 22% overall).

One-word Descriptions

The descriptions respondents use to describe Bush and Kerry have changed substantially over the past three months.

Compared with a February survey conducted at the peak of the Democratic primary cycle, far fewer today can even come up with one word to describe Kerry. And among those who can describe him, there has been a decidedly negative shift in the terms being used.

In February, twice as many said something favorable about Kerry as unfavorable (38% vs. 19%). Since that time, positive remarks have declined, and negative remarks have increased and today Kerry receives roughly the same amount of both (23% positive and 28% negative).

The most frequently used words to describe the Democratic nominee are the lukewarm terms “good,” “hopeful,” “okay,” and “better than Bush.” The top negative term applied to Kerry is “liar,” and is mentioned far more often than it was three months ago. Perhaps more directly showing the impact of the campaign on the candidates image, a number of respondents described Kerry as “indecisive” “wishy-washy” “undecided” and “uncertain,” terms that went virtually unmentioned three months ago.

But no single word has come to dominate the public’s perception of John Kerry as “boring” did with Al Gore four years ago. Across multiple surveys during the early election season, this word was associated with the former vice president more than any other, often by large margins.

While the balance of positive and negative responses about George W. Bush have remained largely the same, the negative terms Bush’s critics use to describe the president negatively have shifted. Three months ago, “liar” was the most often used negative word used to describe the president, mentioned twice as often as terms like “incompetent” or “stupid.”

Today, the order of these phrases has reversed, with “incompetent” most frequently mentioned by Bush’s critics, far more often than references to the president’s dishonesty. One criticism of the president that has remained consistently high over the past year is “arrogance,” which has been the first or second most used word by Bush opponents in three consecutive surveys.

Bush’s supporters continue to describe the president as “honest,” “leader,” “strong,”and cite his “integrity.” Mentions of Bush’s faith also arise frequently: many of his supporters describe Bush as “Christian.”

Who Will Win?

By 52%-31%, more voters believe Bush will win reelection in November than predict a Kerry victory. This is largely unchanged from February, when 56% predicted that Bush would win, and 32% said Kerry would.

Democrats are no more optimistic, or dispirited, about their party’s chances than they were during the primary season. While Republicans overwhelmingly predict a Bush victory (78% vs. 9% who think Kerry will win), Democrats are more divided, with half choosing Kerry, and 34% Bush as the likely victor. While they may not have made up their minds yet themselves, more swing voters expect a Bush victory than a Kerry victory by a margin of two-to-one (52% to 25%).

Earnings Satisfaction Up, Especially Among Republicans

While news from Iraq has generally been bad, working Americans are expressing somewhat more satisfaction with the lifestyles they can afford than has been the case over most of the past decade. Asked whether they earn enough to lead the kind of life they want, 51% of employed respondents say yes, 48% say no. This is comparable to a February survey where 53% of working Americans expressed financial satisfaction, but is significantly higher than any previous survey conducted in the past ten years. From 1994 through 2002, roughly 41% to 44% said they earned enough to live the kind of life they wanted, with very few exceptions.

There is little to suggest that this increase in personal financial satisfaction is related to employment rates ­ while unemployment figures have fluctuated over this time period, the fluctuations are not what is underlying this apparent increase in the proportion of workers who earn a comfortable wage.

But there is a significant, and relatively new, partisan component to this viewpoint. While throughout the trend, employed Republicans have typically expressed somewhat more satisfaction with their earnings than employed Democrats, this mostly reflects the fact that Republicans, on average, earn more. But the gap between Republican and Democratic earnings satisfaction has exploded in recent surveys, suggesting that political attitudes are becoming more associated with more personal, quality-of-life evaluations.

Today, 68% of employed Republicans say they earn enough to lead the kind of life they want, compared with just 46% of employed Democrats. Since January of 2001, this reflects a 21-point increase among Republicans (from 47%) ­ by far the most sizeable shift in this attitude ever measured.

Democrats, too, are feeling a bit better today than in 2001 (46%, up from 39%), but the gap between Democratic and Republican earnings satisfaction is greater than it has ever been previously.

Cite this publication: “Iraq Prison Scandal Hits Home, But Most Reject Troop Pullout.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 12, 2004) http://www.people-press.org/2004/05/12/iraq-prison-scandal-hits-home-but-most-reject-troop-pullout/, accessed on July 22, 2014.