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Is the public really clamoring for war?

With Republicans pounding away on their national security drums in the run-up to the midterm elections, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is out with a striking new ad that seems to suggest ISIS may present an “imminent threat” to the United States. The ad, which targets vulnerable Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, shows footage of Udall at a debate saying this:

“I said last week that ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation. And it doesn’t.”

The NRSC ad’s narrator rejoins: “Really? Can we take that chance?” The ad accuses Udall of not wanting to talk about “our national security,” at a time of “warnings of Islamic extremists” and “ISIL plotting imminent attacks.”

I had a look at the transcript of the debate in question. Udall was talking about a briefing he’d received as a member of the Senate intelligence committee, which indicated ISIS isn’t an “imminent threat.” He went on to say that “if we don’t respond to the threat it represents, it will be a threat to this country.”

Udall supports Obama’s plan to arm and train the Syrian rebels. As it happens, so does his opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner. As the AP put it, on ISIS, the two “found themselves on the same side of the issue.” But Republicans are nonetheless attacking Udall for failing to appreciate the true nature of the threat. This is happening in other Senate races, such as the one in New Hampshire.

This raises a question: Is it really so easy to whip up the public into a froth of national security anxiety and war fever? The GOP strategy seems premised on the idea that it is. Kevin Drum fears the worst:

According to polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans are on board with the fight against ISIS and nearly half think we ought to be sending in ground troops. That’s despite the fact that practically every opinion leader in the country says in public that they oppose ground troops. At this point it would take only a tiny shove — a bomb scare, an atrocity of some kind, pretty much anything — and 70 percent of the country would be in full-bore war frenzy mode. It’s like we’ve learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Andrew Sullivan has expressed similar worries, arguing that Obama may be “consumed” by this new war, “all because when Americans are faced with even the slightest possibility of future terror, they shit their pants and run to daddy.”

I really hope they’re both wrong, and at risk of seeming like I’m burrowing deep into polling internals to escape unpleasant realities, I’m going to argue that the polls actually show at least some public caution about rushing headlong into another war. In particular, focusing too much on public support for generic “action” risks being misleading. Americans support what they perceive as low risk action. A CNN poll released Monday shows that while 73 percent of Americans support air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, 59 percent think we are not at war with ISIS; 54 percent oppose arming the Syrian rebels; and 60 percent oppose sending in ground troops.

As Drum says, “the press is really in love with war.” And indeed, that may be helping create the impression of a public that feels the same way: News orgs have already shown a willingness to hype their own polling to portray the American people as shuddering in fear of grainy footage of terrorists and slavering for more bloody conflict. The bluster from GOP operatives who claim national security is now a huge winner for them — and the credulous media treatment of these claims — also help to reinforce this impression.

But my guess is that the GOP emphasis on national security is more aimed at revving up core voters (which is central to GOP midterm strategy) than anything else. A recent NYT/CBS poll showed that 62 percent of Republicans support sending in ground troops — a position supported by only minorities of independents and moderates.

To be clear, the support that does exist for sending in ground troops is higher than one would have hoped. But I’d caution against assuming the public is all that gung ho for another protracted and costly ground war in the middle east.

Of course, if there were another terror attack on American soil, all bets would probably be off.


UPDATE: One additional data point: CNN polling also shows that only 29 percent of Americans say military action against ISIS will be more important to their vote this fall than the economy, while 65 percent cite the latter.