Published on Thursday, April 29, 2004 by the New York Times
Support for War Is Down Sharply, Poll Concludes
by Richard W Stevenson and Janet Elder
Support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially over the past several months, and Americans are increasingly critical of the way President Bush is handling the conflict, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
After initially expressing robust backing for the war, the public is now evenly divided over whether the United States military should stay for as long as it takes to stabilize Iraq or pull out as soon as possible, the poll showed.
Asked whether the United States had done the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, 47 percent of respondents said it had, down from 58 percent a month earlier and 63 percent in December, just after American forces captured Saddam Hussein. Forty-six percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, up from 37 percent last month and 31 percent in December.
The diminished public support for the war did not translate into any significant advantage for Mr. Bush's Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The poll showed the two men remaining in a statistical dead heat, both in a head-to-head matchup and in a three-way race that included Ralph Nader.
Support for Mr. Bush is stronger in other areas vital to his re-election, including his handling of the threat from terrorism, which won the approval of 60 percent of respondents.
Even so, just short of a year after Mr. Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln last May 1 and proclaimed the end to major combat operations under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," his approval rating has slid from the high levels it reached during the war.
It now stands at 46 percent, the lowest level of his presidency in The Times/CBS News Poll, down from 71 percent last March and a high of 89 percent just after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
At this point in his winning re-election race in 1996, President Bill Clinton's approval rating in The New York Times/CBS News Poll was 48 percent.
Mr. Bush's approval rating for his handling of Iraq was 41 percent, down from 49 percent last month and 59 percent in December.
The survey held hints of trouble for Mr. Kerry as he seeks to introduce himself to an electorate that knows relatively little about him. While 55 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters said they strongly favored the president, only 32 percent of Mr. Kerry's supporters strongly favored their candidate.
Sixty-one percent of voters said Mr. Kerry says what he thinks people want to hear, versus 29 percent who said he says what he believes. The Bush campaign has attacked Mr. Kerry for months on that score, portraying him as a flip-flopper with no convictions.
On the same question, 43 percent said Mr. Bush says what people want to hear and 53 percent said he says what he believes.
The poll, conducted from Friday to Tuesday, came during a month that has seen more American soldiers killed in Iraq than in any other month since the invasion 13 months ago. In the days before the poll was conducted, a Web site obtained and publicly released for the first time photographs of soldiers' coffins returning to the United States from Iraq.
"The only thing I think was good was when they got Saddam," said Anna Bartlow, 67, of Tulsa, Okla., a poll respondent who identified herself as a Republican. "That's the only thing that I think they did right, but if they were going to go over there just for him, they should have gotten him and then got out."
Of the Iraqis, Ms. Bartlow said, "Let them fight it out among themselves."
The poll questioned 1,042 people. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, questioned whether the poll accurately reflected public opinion. But, Mr. Holt said, the White House has all along expected the presidential race to be close until the very end.
"There will be tough times in Iraq," Mr. Holt said, "but the key to prevailing and winning the war on terror is steady, determined leadership."
Chad Clanton, a spokesman for Mr. Kerry, said the fact that the race remained essentially tied showed that Mr. Bush's attacks, including an aggressive advertising campaign, had failed to take down Mr. Kerry.
The poll suggested that American attitudes about the war were shifting in response to a daily barrage of disturbing images and news reports. Mr. Bush's advisers have asserted that Americans long ago made up their minds that the war was justified, and that violent flare-ups in Iraq would not hurt the president politically as long as the United States remained committed to creating a stable democracy there.
But the Times/CBS poll appeared to bolster the view of many Democrats that the intensified violence in Iraq would inevitably lead to questions about the wisdom of the war and Mr. Bush's leadership.
Asked whether the results of the war with Iraq were worth the loss of American lives and other costs, 33 percent of respondents said it was worth it. That was down from 37 percent at the beginning of April and 44 percent in December. Fifty-eight percent said it was not worth it, up from 54 percent at the start of the month and 49 percent in December.
At a time when American troops are engaged in fierce battles in Najaf and Falluja, two centers of the Iraqi insurgency, the poll found that 46 percent of Americans thought the United States military should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to create a stable democracy, even if it takes a long time, and 46 percent said the United States should withdraw as soon as possible.
American perceptions of Iraqis haveH also shifted, the poll found. While 53 percent of Americans in a CBS News poll a year ago saw Iraqis as grateful for getting rid of Mr. Hussein, 38 percent see Iraqis feeling that way now. Forty-eight percent now view the Iraqis as resentful, up from 26 percent a year ago.
But the Iraq developments do not appear to have reshaped the presidential race in any discernible way.
If the election were held today, 46 percent of registered voters would vote for Mr. Kerry and 44 percent for Mr. Bush, the poll found. With Mr. Nader in the race, Mr. Bush would get 43 percent, Mr. Kerry 41 percent and Mr. Nader 5 percent, suggesting that nearly all of Mr. Nader's support comes from voters who would otherwise back the Democrat.
Follow-up interviews with people who took part in the poll suggested that the surge in violence in the past few months had led some Americans who supported the general goal of bringing democracy to Iraq to become more skeptical.
"It appears to me that we're not welcome there, and I don't know if I would have been able to support the invasion of Iraq if I had felt that the Iraqi people didn't welcome us there," said Michael Ryan, 54, of Ashland, Ore., who identified himself as a Democrat.
"I'm under the impression now that Dick Cheney came into office with an agenda for war in Iraq, and that George Bush had the same agenda, and that they were twisting the facts to justify the invasion," he said. "And I feel angry about it because I supported the U.S. invasion."
Violet Adams, 66, of Delta, Colo., who identified herself as a Republican, said she thought the United States would have to maintain a presence in the Middle East for a decade as part of the broader effort to confront Islamic terrorism.
"We either take them in their territory, on their turf, and keep them there, or we let them scatter all over the world and start their little cells, and then we'll all be living like Israel," Ms. Adams said.
Nick Dente, 46, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who identified himself as an independent, said he had not been a supporter of Mr. Bush but was open to backing him depending on how he conducted the fight against terrorism. In going to war with Iraq, Mr. Dente said, Mr. Bush took that fight in the wrong direction.
"I believe we've gotten sidetracked from finding Al Qaeda," he said.
Fred Backus contributed reporting for this article.
Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company