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Polls Suggest War Isn't Hurting Bush

Mounting Deaths in Iraq Have Not Resulted in Major Backlash in Public Opinion

By John F. Harris and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A10

This spring, when mounting casualties and a prison scandal were causing public support for President Bush's Iraq policies to plunge, his campaign strategists were confidently predicting that Iraq problems would present no major threat to his reelection once U.S. forces turned over authority to an interim government in Baghdad.

In the months since, the evidence so far has proven that prediction more right than wrong.

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A steady procession of U.S. military deaths, which this week resulted in the passage of the grim milestone of 1,000, has so far not caused an obvious backlash in public opinion against Bush's handling of Iraq. This support has steadily weakened over the past two years, but not in ways that suggest a direct correlation between casualties and political support.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Bush with a 53 percent to 37 percent advantage over Democrat John F. Kerry when voters were asked who they think would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq.

These results challenge what some public opinion analysts had for years assumed was a reliable link -- which some scholars argued operated with an almost mathematical precision -- between combat deaths and erosion of support for military operations.

Public support for Iraq, said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, "does not so much track with number of casualties per se, but with the public's sense of whether things are degrading."

Bush political strategists believed that the handover of authority on June 28 would be a major turning point in public opinion, even though about 140,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Iraq. Before the handover, when news of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced and intense combat against insurgents was taking American lives, Bush and Kerry for the first time were running about even in national polls on who would better handle the Iraq issue.

Casualties have continued, but Bush quickly regained the clear advantage on the issue during most polls since he began pursuing his confrontation with Iraq in 2002.

The latest Post-ABC poll was conducted amid news marking the 1,000-death milestone, reached during a bloody week in which more than a dozen Americans were killed in two days of fighting.

Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who studies the intersection of national security and public opinion, has been skeptical of the notion that combat deaths necessarily translate to an erosion of public support. Even so, he added that this week's news may cause many in the public to face a "gut check" on what they think about the direction of Iraq policy. He believes that the results of this check, which may not register in polls for a week or more, will hinge on whether the public believes the Iraq war is winnable and whether the mission was worthwhile.

At the time Bush declared major combat operations over in the spring of 2003, 70 percent of voters said the war in Iraq was worth fighting, but the latest poll put that number at 51 percent.

"The public's casualty tolerance is not unlimited, and I would expect to see some erosion going forward," Feaver said.

Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry, said both polling and focus groups make him confident that Iraq is "one of George Bush's greatest liabilities," but he agreed that support is not tied in an immediate sense to combat deaths. One reason, he argued, is that there is less news coverage of combat deaths after the handover of limited sovereignty. The Bush administration has shown undue attention, Democrats have complained, to shaping that coverage. Bush does not frequently mention casualties, and the administration has restricted news coverage of returning flag-draped caskets -- a common image of earlier conflicts.

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a longtime critic of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, believes that the White House and Pentagon are even letting concern for political implications shape military strategy. "We are fighting skillfully, but we are ceding large portions of the country, so we can get through the presidential election," he said.

More than 50,000 Americans died over more than a decade of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, though public support remained at majority levels for at least the first half of the conflict and began to sour only after U.S. policies were widely perceived not to be working after the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft noted that American public opinion may be less sensitive to combat deaths in part because they seem remote to most people in a large country, where many people have no close family or acquaintances in the armed forces.

"The Israeli public is far more sensitive to casualties," he said. "Thirty dead soldiers per year were enough to create public resistance to the [Lebanese] occupation and finally bring about withdrawal. In Israel everyone has a family member who is a soldier or knows one. Funerals are covered extensively in the media and when a soldier dies, his pictures appear on the first page of major newspapers and on national television."

James Burk of Texas A&M University said deaths in Iraq have not had as much political resonance as they might have because the public does not have a clear sense that Kerry has an alternative policy.

"He needs a standard that lets him clearly show the difficulties of Bush's war policies and make a case that they are difficulties his own policies would overcome," he said. "Until Kerry finds his voice on this issue, there is no reason to suppose that current casualty rates would be much different under a Kerry administration than they are under the present administration."

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