September 3, 2013
CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, right, and other protestors hold up signs during the Capitol Hill hearing involving Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, right, and another protester hold up signs during the Capitol Hill hearing involving Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Two new polls out today, from The Post-ABC News and Pew, confirm that the proposed strike on Syria remains quite unpopular.

I won’t say to Ignore These Polls!, as I often do, but I would advise everyone to treat them with extreme caution.

What we’re getting here are initial reactions by people to an extremely confused situation. Those who are just tuning in to the discussion — which means most people — are not getting clear opinion leader signals, since both Democratic and Republican elites are split. With the obvious partisan or ideological shortcuts far less reliable than usual, Americans presumably are tossed back, more than usual, to their knowledge of this particular issue and of Syria in general.

What all of this means is that the answers to these polls are only giving us very limited information, and that the results probably could change rapidly as the information environment changes. The answers aren’t likely to be very predictive of what people will think in the future, because most respondents don’t know what they’ll think in the future. It’s going to be contingent on events, and contingent on changes within elite opinion.

I have no objection with anyone concluding from this polling that U.S. citizens have a general background reluctance to get embroiled in yet another war in that general region. That’s interesting, and somewhat useful for politicians to know. But surely a far more useful thing to know will be whether (if there are strikes) elite opinion rallies around the president and the attacks are reported as successful. Not to mention whether U.S. involvement becomes more difficult and costly, in which case background reluctance could easily turn into active opposition. But that just means that the initial reluctance means little; when Iraq went bad Americans turned against the war, despite their initial support.

In other words, don’t quite ignore these polls. Just don’t trust them to say much about future opinion.