Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

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.

Tags: Barack Obama, Election 08, Iraq, John McCain (all tags)



Re: Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

The issue isn't whether Quinnipiac accurately reflected the candidates positions in their poll. The issue is whether the Quinnipiac poll question accurately reflects what people think are the candidates positions. Those are two separate things.

I'm hopeful Obama can better get his actual plan/message about this out, because independents I talk to all still would characterize it exactly the way Quinnipiac did. And they'd likely characterize McCain as having a plan exactly the way Quinnipiac posits as well...

by fsm 2008-07-31 11:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

No, I don't think that's their intent. They want to poll the two Iraq strategies in a vacuum. I asked Brown why they divorced policy positions from candidates - he said it's so perception of the candidate doesn't prejudice people's response to the strategies. Whether that's possible or even useful is another question.

by Josh Orton 2008-07-31 11:42AM | 0 recs
Re: Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

In a sense that's not entirely news.  Centrists buy into the argument of moderate Republicans about the war- as long as the American-propped constitutional government survives, Iraq shouldn't be given up on.

This despite not believing that it's worth it, or that the imposed government can survive.

by killjoy 2008-07-31 12:12PM | 0 recs
Centrists I know disagree

Only those on the far right are interested in staying in Iraq for "victory".

Everyone else knows Iraq is an incredibly expensive and unnecessary burden on the US economy and military.

by Betsy McCall 2008-07-31 12:21PM | 0 recs
Re: Have you spoken to the Marines and Soldiers?

"Winning" what?  I am not sure what in Iraq is subject to a win or a loss. This is part of the war on Terror, do you thin Terrorism can be beaten like a nation.  John McCain needs a WW1/WW2 style "unconditional surrender" to see victory and we are not going to get that against irregular forces. George H.W. Bush was right, removing Saddam Hussein would be insane, and only strengthen Iran and extremism in the region.  Soldiers don't make good policemen and despite the level of violence and arms in Iraq your glorified policemen, paying off some of the bad guys to "reduce" violence.  And based on the criteria I use to consider a success, the surge was a failure, and a huge waste of resources. A diet was a failure if you eventually gain the weight back.  

If you look at what happended to the historically powder keg countries post-Soviet occupation, or the "success" of Israeli occupation in the region, you will understand why I think what we do in Iraq is ultimately meaningless.  It's like the civil war in this country, which wasn't just about slavery, sometimes people need to find their own solution, having one externally imposed isn't going to work.  We are meddeling in a conflict with roots that predate our nation, are we really arrogant enough to think we can suddenly have a "victorious" solution?

In the mean time we have moved in the wrong direction to protect ourselves from 9/11 style terrorism.  And diverted enough resources, that an economic correction is turning into a catastrophe.  And we have become so dependent on potentially hostile nations, that we would be in serious trouble if they collectively decided to wage economic warfare against us.

But yeah lets keep flailing around in Iraq. Korea has been called a failure even though the North lost territory. Vietnam was called a failure even though we stopped the spread of communism in the region, which I thought the entire point was.  But we are going to be able to achieve victory in Iraq....... against who or what exactly?

by Tumult 2008-07-31 01:19PM | 0 recs
The phrasing seems slanted

Whether intentional or not, the phrasing used to describe the two positions implies "stability" in Iraq for one position while the other is, what? Unstable?

Error of omission, nor not an error at all, it seems fairly transparent.

Obama has emphasized troop safety in his Iraq withdrawal plans, yet that's not reflected in these questions.

by Betsy McCall 2008-07-31 12:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

I'm a big big BO supporter and will stick a rusty spoon in my eye if McCain wins this thing. That said, if I had to choose between those polling options--in a vacuum like you said--then I'd pick B. I think setting a deadline for withdrawal regardless of the ever changing dynamics on the ground and within the Iraqi political structure is problematic at best. Unflinching deadlines and adherence to dogmatic views in spite of new, sometimes confounding evidence, is the hallmark of the Bush presidency; two sides of the same coin if you will.

Certainly, though, victory and stability need to be defined and adhered to, as does the will of the Iraqi leaders. With regards to the poll you have to ask yourself: who is more likely to adjust the plan according to reality? Who's long term vision with regards to ending the Iraq war (March to Freedom) do you trust? It that sense, the poll answers can't be divorced from the candidates who supposedly hold those positions. For example, even a non-partisan should be able to see a lack of substance in defining what constitutes "victory." This poll assumes an equal level of substance, planning and detail behind each option and that is, arguably, untrue.

On the other hand I can see the logic of NOT including the candidates so the strategies can be assessed on their own merits without the bias of having a candidate attached to that poll question. In sum, no I don't think the poll is "unfair" or "untrustworthy" per se. This poll, like many others before it, don't tell the whole story.

by bigdaddy 2008-07-31 12:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Iraq Strategy: Don't Trust The Polls

Agree, great points. It's almost more prejudicial to try and divorce the policies from the politicians.

by Josh Orton 2008-07-31 12:54PM | 0 recs


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