McCain Shifting Public's View on Iraq?

"Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions," the Washington Post headline blares. It seems like big news indeed. Until now, polls have consistently shown a clear majority of Americans favoring something like Obama's position; if not his precise 16-month timetable, at least a definite commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within a specific time frame. In this new Washington Post - ABC poll, the number who want no timetable exactly equals the number who favor a timetable. Could this mark a turning point in the public's views, toward McCain's "as long as it takes" position?

That question has to be asked in a larger context. It's true that in recent polls, anywhere from 58% to 68% want most U.S. troops out of Iraq within some specified time. (It's anywhere from a few months to two years, depending on how each poll puts the question.) Yet when the public is asked, "Who do you trust more to make the best decisions about the Iraq war," McCain still wins every time, as he has for months.

His lead on that question has gradually been decreasing. In this latest WaPo-ABC poll he wins by only 47% to 45%, which is within the margin of error. Still, if most Americans indeed want troops withdrawn within a specific timeline -- exactly the policy McCain vehemently opposes -- why should he come out ahead on that question by any margin?
This latest poll appears to be the first where the puzzle disappears and it all fits together logically: The public is roughly split on which candidate to trust about the war because it's split on what war policy to follow -- or so it seems, at first glance.

Take a closer look, though, and things get more complicated. In this poll, nearly two-thirds say the war was not worth fighting, a number that is consistent with most other polls. Only one-third say the U.S. must win in Iraq in order for the broader war on terrorism to be a success, while 60% disagree. In other words, overall support for the war remains low, just as every other poll finds, too. So the question remains: Why the surprising support for McCain's prowar policy?
Maybe it's a matter of how the question was phrased. As the WaPo itself noted: "This is the first time the Post-ABC poll has squared the two candidates' withdrawal plans against each other. In previous polls, a majority of Americans (55 percent in June) put a priority on withdrawal even without civil order in Iraq."

If you just ask people whether they want a fixed date for withdrawal or not, a clear majority have been saying yes they do. But here, with the candidates' names attached to the alternatives, the numbers shift to a tie. So this ballyhooed "Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions" may actually reflect only the continuing personal appeal of McCain.

The poll also asked whether each candidate "would be a good commander-in-chief of the military." On that question, Obama gets an equal number of "yes" and "no," while McCain polls "yes" by a whopping 3 to 1 margin. (In the latest New York Times - CBS poll, Obama closes the gap only slightly on that question.)

That's no surprise to anyone who has been watching poll questions about the military and national security, where McCain gets overwhelming advantage every time. McCain's general advantage in the military/security area always plays to his advantage on questions concerning Iraq.

So does ignorance: Many people do not know his actual position on Iraq. The WaPo-Abc pollsters asked whether each candidate "has been clear or unclear in his position on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq?" Only 56% said Obama has been clear; not surprising, given all the media hype about his suppose "flip-flopping." But amazingly, only 60% said McCain has been clear.

A recent Pew poll got the same result. It asked: "As far as you know, does McCain support or oppose a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq? Whatabout Obama? Three-quarters knew that Obama supports a timetable. But only 62% knew that McCain opposes it.

In other words, if the polls are at all representative of the public at large, millions of people say they trust McCain more than Obama on the war, even though they don't know what his true often-stated position is. It's McCain the person, not his position, that they support. And when they are told what his position is, that may just push them toward supporting it.

Yet there are other new polls out that suggest a different interpretation. The latest NYT-CBS poll asks: "If John McCain were elected President, do you think he would generally continue George W. Bush's policies in Iraq, or not?" Fully 78% answer (probably quite rightly) "Yes." That might sound like good news for the Democrats, if the poll had not found that 45% of the public think things are "going well" for the U.S. in Iraq.

54% still say "not well." But that 9 point gap looks awfully small compared to the 50 point spread on the same question a year ago, when the public was far more pessimistic about Bush's policy. So there may be a widespread awareness that McCain will continue that policy. And it may not be hurting him much at all.

Perhaps that helps to explain the latest Quinnapiac poll, which asks: "Regardless of how you intend to vote, what would you prefer the next president do about the war in Iraq - - Begin immediately a withdrawal of American troops with a fixed date to have them all out within 18 months OR Keep troops in Iraq until the situation is more stable and then begin to withdraw them without a fixed date for full withdrawal?"

In this poll, with no candidate mentioned by name, only 43% support a fixed date of 18 months, while 51% prefer no fixed date. That's a stunning turnaround from all the previous polling. It might turn out to be just a fluke. Or it might indicate that a year's worth of corporate media hype about "progress" in Iraq, combined with the widespread trust in McCain on war and security issues, is beginning to turn public opinion on the war.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email:

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