Don't Panic November 06 2002

Do Americans support military action against Iraq?

Determining right, wrong, good, bad, popular and unpopular through polls is tricky business. With the notable exception of firefighters and strippers, Americans tend to be suspicious of polls.

Wait a minute, I'm confusing poles with polls. Let's try again.

A survey of everyone sitting at my desk shows that the main problem with polls isn't that they're inaccurate but rather that they can accurately reflect stupid opinions. If you need proof that public opinion shouldn't be trusted, remember that slavery was popular, Hitler was elected and, for four months, Vanilla Ice was the nation's best-selling recording artist.

Two smaller problems with polls are: a) those polled don't necessarily represent the population as a whole, and b) seemingly small differences in the questions can yield dramatically different results.

To witness first-hand how small wording changes can alter answers, try asking these two questions next time you're at a bar: Question #1: Do you enjoy having sex? Question #2: Do you enjoy having sex with me?

My informal poll of formal polls show that a majority of Americans (in the 50 percent to 60 percent range) favor military action against Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That's a significant drop from mid-September, when polls showed support well into the 60s.

Here's where the phrasing comes in though. The same polls also show that a majority would not support an invasion resulting in heavy casualties or if we did it unilaterally. For example, the Pew Research Center's Oct. 30 survey shows that 55 percent of Americans favor an invasion, but only 27 percent would approve if we invaded without international allies.

As of now, we don't have any invasion allies except for the U.K. Nevertheless, the White House has made it clear that it's gonna kick ass in Iraq whether we have allies or not. In other words, the White House is prepared to pursue a policy that, according to the Pew Research Center, only has the approval of 27 percent of Americans.

Support declines even further when you remind male voters that an autumn or winter invasion would pre-empt the broadcast of NFL games.

So supporters and opponents of an invasion can both find numbers to make them think the country agrees with them. As someone who writes on an iMac, this upsets me. For years, Apple has been instructing me in its ads to "think different." Now, polls are telling me that, no matter what I think, a hell of a lot of other people probably think the same thing.

If, like me, you're craving a more definitive interpretation of where the populace stands on Iraq, you might look to Congress. No organization does it damnedest to move in the direction that the wind is blowing quite as intently as Congress does. Recently both the Senate and the House voted overwhelmingly to let the president invade, with or without international help. Maybe, our peeps on Capitol Hill think Americans want to invade no matter what.

Then again, maybe they're more concerned about how the issue plays out politically: It sometimes works for politicians to take a fightin' stance against foreign despots — even if the particular fight they're backing isn't really all that popular.

There's some evidence that the politicians may not be reading the polls right, though. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was the only incumbent in a tight re-election battle to vote against giving President Bush the authority to invade. Right after that vote, Wellstone's campaign widened its once-tiny lead over his Republican opponent — at least, according to the polls. He appeared headed for victory until he died in an Oct. 25 plane crash.


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