The photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers have had a major impact on public opinion in the United States, according to back-to-back national polls that also show continued erosion in support for President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
A major poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that a whopping 76 percent of the public has seen the photos, while a USA Today/CNN Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 48 percent of respondents believe the incidents depicted in the photos represented a “major setback” to the US mission in Iraq.
Analyses that accompanied both polls concluded that the photos appear to be directly linked to a sharp loss in support for the US occupation.
The poll released Tuesday, which was conducted last weekend, found that 54 percent of those interviewed now say going to war was “not worth it” up from 47 percent just one week ago, as the photos were first appearing in US media. The latest poll marked the first time that a majority has come to that conclusion.
Moreover, nearly half of those polled or 47 percent said they believe the US should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq a sharp rise of 10 percentage points since mid-March. Fifty-three percent of Pew respondents said the US should not pull out until a stable government is established in Baghdad. That was down from 63 percent in January. In addition, the poll found a significant gender gap on the issue, with a plurality of women favoring withdrawal.
Similarly, the Pew poll found that public assessments of the war have reached their lowest levels yet. Only 46 percent describe the war as going well, the first time less than a majority has felt that the developments there were going at least “fairly well.” Conversely, for the first time, a majority described the war as going “not well.”
More ominously for Bush, 55 percent of self-described political “independents” that is, potential “swing” voters who will likely decide the outcome in November’s elections – chose the “not well” option, compared to 26 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats.
Both surveys show that a majority of all respondents still believe that the decision to go to war was right, but that majority has shrunk from highs of nearly 80 percent when US troops entered Baghdad to record lows of just 54 percent in the Tuesday poll and 51 percent in the Pew poll.
But the latter also suggested that the decline of support in swing constituencies has been particularly sharp, with only 48 percent of independents now saying going to war was the correct decision. While key elements of Bush’s political base self-described Republicans and white evangelical Protestants remain solidly behind the decision to go to war, support for the decision has dropped by more than a third among white Catholics and mainline Protestants, according to the analysis.
The poll results come amid considerable speculation about the course of the election campaign. Democrats have become increasingly concerned that Bush’s standing in the polls has not fallen vis-à-vis his presumptive Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, despite the tide of bad news coming out of Iraq.
In most polls, the lead in the race has seesawed between the two men with Kerry, who has maintained a fairly low profile on Iraq since the prison-abuse scandal first surfaced, seemingly unable to establish a decisive lead.
Nonetheless, two prominent pollsters, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Center, and John Zogby, who runs his own polling firm, have suggested that the public is far more focused on Bush than on Kerry, who can be expected to garner much more attention as the actual election approaches.
In a New York Times column Wednesday, Kohut compared the current race to the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, noting that Carter held a significant lead in the polls during the first six months of the year even as his public-approval ratings slumped badly. It was not until the summer that Reagan drew even and then pulled ahead just before the election itself. Similarly, Bush’s father enjoyed a modest lead over Bill Clinton in 1992, despite the fact that his approval ratings fell sharply as the economic recession took hold.
“Should the voters’ disillusionment with the current President Bush continue, they will evaluate John Kerry and decide whether he is worth a chance,” Kohut said, adding that Bush’s approval ratings are the most important barometer at this stage in the race.
Zogby also observed that Bush’s performance ratings and even his showing in surveys against Kerry demonstrated significant weakness for an incumbent compared to relevant antecedents, noting that only 43 percent believed that Bush deserved to be reelected as of mid-April, compared to 51 percent who said it was time for someone new.
Recent polls also suggest that the intensity among those who want Bush out is both greater and growing faster than feelings on the pro-Bush side.
The latest Pew poll shows that Kerry currently leads Bush 50 to 45 percent in a two man-race and by 46 to 43 percent in a three-man race with Ralph Nader.
But confidence in Bush relative to Kerry has eroded significantly on Iraq and the economy. While the president retains a slight edge as the candidate better prepared to make wise decisions in Iraq policy, that was down by 12 percentage points compared to six weeks ago. At the same time, Kerry now leads Bush by double-digit margins on the economy and health care.
On the other hand, Bush still leads by a significant margin (52-33 percent) on the question of who voters prefer when it comes to defending the country from terrorism.
Bush has also suffered a significant drop in approval, from 48 percent in late April to 44 percent now. Some 26 percent of respondents said their overall impression of Bush has gotten worse over the past few weeks. Among likely swing voters, Bush’s approval rating also stands at 44 percent, an 11 percent drop compared to February.
Even more ominous for the Bush camp are overall assessments of where the country is heading seen by some pollsters as the most critical variable for incumbents. On that question, public confidence has fallen to 33 percent, the lowest level in eight years, according to the Pew poll.
On reactions to the photos themselves, the USA Today survey found that four in five respondents said they were bothered by the abuse and nearly three in four said there were no circumstances under which such incidents could be justified. More than 80 percent said they believe US soldiers have higher standards of conduct than their counterparts from other nations.