Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls
by Josh Orton, Thu Jul 31, 2008 at 11:07:13 AM EDT
It's relatively easy to poll people's opinion of whether we should have gone into Iraq in the first place - but polling on what strategy should be used going forward is inherently dicey. It's all about the wording of the question.
So when I read this result summary from the latest Quinnipiac poll of PA, OH, and FL, I got suspicious:
Voters overwhelmingly believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. But in each of the three states, by a spread of 10 to 20 points, voters "support McCain's plan to keep U.S. troops in Iraq with no fixed date for withdrawal, rather than Obama's plan to set a fixed timetable for withdrawal."
Could that possibly be true?
I went back to the full poll and found the exact wording of the question:
13. Regardless of how you intend to vote, what would you prefer the next president do about the war in Iraq?
A) Begin immediately a withdrawal of American troops, with a fixed date to have them all out within 18 months.
OR B) Keep troops in Iraq until the situation is more stable, and then begin to withdraw them, without a fixed date for full withdrawal.
A question about what should be done in Iraq strategically is, basically, a comparison of both candidates' positions, distilled down to a single phrase. But Quinnipiac doesn't assign the two positions to specific candidates.
The distillation of Obama's position - "begin immediately a withdrawal of American troops, with a fixed date to have them all out within 18 months" - lacks the detail of training, diplomatic and international intervention, and advice from commanders. The consistent, granular, and comprehensive Iraq strategy Obama has held for over a year gets lost in translation.
The distillation of McCain's strategy is more grossly problematic, in no small part because McCain barely has any specific strategy.
Let's break down the wording.
The question starts with "keep troops in Iraq until the situation is more stable..." But what does "more stable" look like? McCain's only example of what a more stable Iraq looks like is post-war Korea, a scenario most know is impossible. Further, the poll wording posits that when things do become more stable, the strategy is to "then begin to withdraw them, without a fixed date for full withdrawal." Has McCain said that? From what I remember, McCain said that the timing of when our forces come home is "not too important," and that he actually seems content to leave forces in Iraq indefinitely as long as casualties decline.
So where is Quinnipiac getting the source material for this question? Which statements are they summarizing these Iraq strategies from? When I spoke today with one of Quinnipiac's pollsters, Peter Brown, he said he couldn't point to any specific statement or material - but rather his poll's wording was a general summary of what the candidates have said on the campaign trail.
This should serve as a strong reminder to take any polling of Iraq strategy with a grain of salt.
Without specific source material to distill the question from, pollsters run the risk of greatly distorting a candidate's strategy (or lack thereof). Case in point: while Obama's withdrawal timetable uses a 16-month frame, Quinnipiac inexplicably polls an 18-month frame.
Is it even possible to accurately poll Iraq strategy? Should specific positions be divorced from candidates when polled, especially when one of the candidates consistently substitutes rhetoric for actual strategy?
If and when pundits say this poll proves that more people agree with McCain on Iraq than Obama, don't believe them.