June 20, 2006

Iraq Views Improve, Small Bounce for Bush

After Zarqawi's Death…

Summary of Findings

Americans are now more positive about the way things are going in Iraq than in the past few months, following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and President Bush’s brief visit to the country. Optimism about the U.S. achieving its goals in Iraq, which sagged in the spring, has rebounded. But this has resulted in only a slight boost in President Bush’s overall approval ratings, and last week’s congressional debate failed to engage the public or improve the GOP’s standing on the issue.

A 53% majority now says the military effort in Iraq is going at least fairly well, up from 47% in April and an all-time low of 43% in March. The share who believe that the U.S. is making progress in training Iraqi forces, defeating the insurgents, and establishing a democracy has also risen from recent lows.

However, the positive news from Iraq has had a limited effect on Bush’s standing with the public. Bush’s job approval stands at 36%, compared with 33% in April, and since March he has gained modestly on terrorism and the war in Iraq. But on both issues ­ as well as in views of his overall job performance ­ Bush’s ratings remain lower now than they were in February. This is the case for other issues as well, with the exception of immigration, where positive views of his performance have risen from 23% to 32%.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 14-19 among 1,501 Americans ­ finds that Republican efforts to raise the political profile of the Iraq war have drawn little public attention. About four-in-ten Americans (38%) say they heard nothing at all about recent congressional debates on how to handle the situation in Iraq; another 44% say they heard little about the debate in Congress.

Despite prevailing in Friday’s vote affirming current policy in Iraq, Republicans did not gain public support for their handling of the issue. By 34%-28%, more Americans say they think the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, can do a better job making wise decisions about what to do in Iraq. The balance of opinion is largely unchanged since February (41% Democratic Party/38% Republican party).

Zarqawi’s death did attract broad public attention, with seven-in-ten following news of his killing either very closely (37%) or fairly closely (35%). Roughly a third of Americans (32%) believe Zarqawi’s death will make the situation in Iraq better compared with 17% who think it will make the situation worse. But a 44% plurality say this event will not have much of an effect one way or the other.

While public perceptions of how things are going in Iraq have improved, baseline attitudes toward the war have not changed. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should “bring its troops home as soon as possible” (45%) or “keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized” (50%). In addition, a small majority continues to favor the establishment of a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. In the current poll, 52% say there should be a timetable (and 2% volunteer that we should get out now), while 42% disagree. This is little different from April, when 53% favored and 40% opposed the establishment of a timetable.

More Optimism about Iraq

The uptick in optimism about Iraq is seen in several areas, aside from a better view of the overall military effort. More Americans believe that the U.S. will succeed in establishing a stable democracy than did so in March (55% now, 49% in March).

An increasing number also believe the effort in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism (44%, up from 38% in April). Moreover, the public sees progress on specific objectives in the war, including defeating the insurgents militarily and training Iraqi security forces.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) now say that the U.S. is making progress in defeating the insurgents militarily, compared with 36% who say we are losing ground. In March, the public’s views were nearly reversed ­ 36% said we were making progress defeating the insurgents while 51% said we were losing ground. Along the same lines, there has been a modest increase in the percentage who says the U.S. is making progress in preventing terrorists from using Iraq as a base for attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

Similarly, the formation of an Iraqi government appears to be registering with the public. The number of Americans seeing progress in establishing a democracy in Iraq has increased somewhat since March (from 50% to 55%), though it is still slightly lower than in December, just prior to the parliamentary elections that month.

Roughly three-in-ten (32%) say the U.S. is making progress in preventing a civil war between various religious and ethnic groups; that compares with 24% in March and 26% in April. Still, half believe the U.S. is losing ground in this area.

On other issues, however, public attitudes have remained stable. A slim majority (52%) continues to say we are making progress rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, but just under three-in-ten (29%) believe we are succeeding in reducing the number of civilian casualties. These numbers are largely unchanged from the spring.

Partisan Divides on the War

As they have been since the war began, public views of the situation in Iraq remain highly polarized along partisan lines. Both in their judgments about the wisdom of getting involved and in what to do now, Democrats and Republicans remain very divided. There are also substantial partisan differences in perceptions of progress on the military and political objectives of the war.

The greatest partisan gap continues to be whether going to war was the right decision for the U.S.; the vast majority of Republicans (83%) believe that it was, while only 24% of Democrats agree. Independents are divided with 46% thinking it was the right decision and 47% saying it was wrong. There is also a large divide on whether to keep troops in Iraq (72% of Republicans favor this, compared with 31% of Democrats). There is a somewhat smaller partisan difference over whether to set a timetable for troop withdrawals; a step which 65% of Democrats favor along with 36% of Republicans.

Republicans are generally more optimistic about the war, with three-quarters (75%) believing that the military effort is going very or fairly well; just 37% of Democrats think this. Nearly as many Republicans believe that the war has helped, rather the hurt, the war on terrorism (72% vs. 27% for Democrats). And about eight-in-ten Republicans (81%) think that the U.S. will definitely or probably succeed in establishing a stable democratic government in Iraq; just 41% of Democrats agree.

There are also sizable partisan differences in perceptions of how well the U.S. is doing on several aspects of the war effort. Wide majorities of Republicans believe the U.S. is making progress in training Iraqi forces, rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, establishing a democracy and preventing the use of Iraq as a terrorist base. Fewer than half of Democrats see progress on any of these objectives. Overall, the public sees the least progress in the areas of reducing civilian casualties and preventing a civil war, but the party divide remains ­ roughly half of Republicans believe we are making progress in these areas, while fewer than one-in-five Democrats agree.

Bush Job Approval

The small rebound in Bush’s job approval over the past month (from 33% to 36%) primarily represents a rebound within his political base. Job approval among conservative Republicans, which had fallen to an all-time low of 78% last month, is up eight points to 86%. Overall approval also has risen slightly among moderate and liberal Republicans and independents, while remaining unchanged among Democrats, 82% of whom disapprove of the president’s job performance.

As a result, there is more partisan polarization over the president than in April, though the partisan gaps are larger on some issues than others. Views of the president’s handling of Iraq and foreign policy in general are the most partisan. Fully 78% of conservative Republicans approve of how the president is handling foreign policy, while just 1% of liberal Democrats shares this view.

But Republicans are less supportive of the president on some other issues, in particular the environment, energy policy and immigration. Just 38% of moderate and liberal Republicans approve of the job Bush is doing on energy policy ­ his lowest rating from this segment of the party. For conservative Republicans, there are questions about Bush’s immigration policy ­ just 51% of conservative Republicans approve of how the president is handling immigration.

Zarqawi Followed More Closely than Haditha

Public attention to news about gas prices is at its lowest point since Hurricane Katrina, though it continues to top the list of stories followed very closely. More than half of Americans (58%) say they followed this news story very closely, down significantly from last month (69%) and a high of 71% in September of last year.

The killing of Zarqawi by U.S. forces was followed very closely by 37% of Americans, and another 35% tracked the story fairly closely. Republicans (46% very closely) paid more attention to this story than Democrats (34%) or independents (34%). Similarly, those who think going to war in Iraq was the right decision (42%) and those who approve of President Bush’s job performance (44%) were more likely to closely follow this news story than their counterparts (34% each). Zarqawi’s death as a result of U.S. airstrikes garnered slightly less public attention than the killing of Saddam Hussein’s two sons by U.S. forces nearly three years ago ­ a story that 45% reported following very closely.

Fewer report following the investigation into events in Haditha involving U.S. Marines who allegedly killed civilians than the death of Zarqawi. Roughly a quarter (24%) have followed this story very closely, with another 31% following fairly closely. Also unlike news about Zarqawi, there is no partisan divide in attention to the Haditha reports.

Just over a third of Americans (36%) are following news about immigration very closely. Attention is down from 44% last month when there were well-publicized protests around the country. Attention to reports about Iran’s nuclear research program has also fallen, with 21% following very closely, down from 26% last month.

The mid-term elections have yet to draw widespread public attention. Fewer than one-in-five (18%) are closely following news about candidates in election campaigns in their state and district. Just 14% of the public followed reports about the financial links between lobbyists and members of Congress very closely, with Democrats paying more attention than Republicans (18% vs. 12%).

The American public remains largely disinterested in the World Cup. Just 8% are following the soccer championship being held in Germany, virtually unchanged from four years ago when the events were in Japan and South Korea (which 10% followed very closely). By comparison, the last three summer Olympics (in 2004, 2000 and 1996) were followed very closely by at least a quarter of Americans.

World Cup fans are more likely to live in an urban (11%) rather than rural setting (5%), and live in the Northeast (17%) than in other parts of the country (6% average). In addition, men, younger people, and college graduates are following the World Cup competition more closely.