In the wake of New Hampshire, I know we’re all supposed to ignore polls and pretend that they tell us little, but it seems useful to look at the most recent Iraq war polling again in response to this Jennifer Rubin piece. Rubin wrote:
To look ahead to the general election, the surge may also have changed the landscape for the Republicans as a whole. If progress continues, the GOP will not face searing headlines and escalating body counts. The traditional image of the GOP as the more responsible and less skittish party in national security may be restored somewhat and the Democrats’ willingness to “cut and run” again becomes a viable campaign issue.
So the lessons of the surge are familiar ones, but ones repeatedly forgotten by politicians anxious to seek safer ground in any controversy. Short-term political gain does not always translate into long-term electoral success [bold mine-DL]. The public in the end will reward political courage — in part because it is so rare.
With all the usual caveats that the election is still ten months away and many things may change, I confess that I don’t see where Rubin is getting this impression that the “surge” stands to benefit the GOP. Obviously, “surge” supporters hope that it does, and anything is possible, but there is little reason to think that it has had any meaningful impact on public opinion about the war. On the surface, yes, McCain is doing better (because he won in a state he had won eight years ago, though with almost 30,000 fewer voters this time), while bizarrely losing to Romney among strong supporters of the war 44-23%. Huckabee has probably temporarily benefited in the GOP primaries from being unequivocally for the “surge” while Romney was more skeptical about its success, but this may, in fact, prove to be a liability should he win the nomination. It is worth noting that Romney’s very modest skepticism and caution actually put him closer to the majority of the country than does McCain’s mantra “we are winning.” McCain’s best electoral asset seems to be that he wins the votes of Republican war opponents, as he did in New Hampshire, in spite of his close identification with the war–this is probably a function of the weakness of Republican war opponents’ opposition rather than McCain’s ability to appeal to those on the other side of the debate. It seems implausible that non-Republican war opponents will be as willing to support him.
In the NBC/WSJ poll from Dec. 14-17, opposition to the war remained as strong as ever. 63% disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war. That would have to include, as of last month, the “surge” as well as everything that came before. 56% believe victory is not still possible. 44% believe the “surge” has made no difference, and 14% believe that it has made things worse. These numbers are virtually unchanged from earlier months. 57% want to remove most troops by 2009. In a Dec. 16-19 ABC News poll, 62% say they believe was not worth fighting. More recent polling by Rasmussen from Jan. 2-3 tells us that 51% believe the war will be judged a failure in the long-term, and only 34% believe that things will improve over the next six months (this group includes 61% of Republicans, but only a fifth of Democrats and a quarter of “other”). Barring fairly major shifts in public opinion in coming months, the relative military gains of the “surge” seem to have had no effect whatever on opinions about the war. Since several polls last month showed that the public had more confidence in the Democrats on the Iraq war, it is not at all clear where anyone would get the idea that the “surge” is helping the GOP electorally.