Primat der Aussenpolitik

by Henry Farrell on September 3, 2004

How is the Iraq debacle affecting Bush’s popularity? This is the subject of another “intriguing APSA paper”:, co-written by Erik Voeten and Paul R. Brewer.[1] Like most papers being presented at APSA this week, it’s a work in progress – for one thing there’s a couple of months’ more data to be collected – but it makes some very interesting arguments.

A couple of key points emerge. First, public opinion on the war is affecting Bush’s popularity – but the relationship is complicated. The paper suggests that public opinion on the war can be disaggregated into three different evaluations – (1) of whether the war was a good idea in the first place, (2) of whether the President is doing a good job in prosecuting the war, and (3) of whether the war is going well. According to the paper, evaluations of whether the war was a good idea in the first place should have the strongest relationship with Bush’s popularity. However, they’re also the most strongly rooted of the three, and thus the most difficult to change. Evaluations of whether the war is going successfully or not, are the most likely to be changed by events – but also have the weakest effect on Bush’s popularity. A 1% change in the number of respondents who think the war is going well corresponds to a.29% shift in the evaluation of Bush’s performance in Iraq, and only a .17% shift in the the number of respondents who think the war was worth it.

The data suggest that there is a strong relationship between support for the war and Bush’s approval rating. A 1% increase in support for the war equates to a .74% increase in Bush’s approval rating (and vice versa). However, support for the war seems perhaps to be becoming less important in relative terms – there is some tentative evidence suggesting that economic confidence is now becoming an increasingly important influence on Presidential approval ratings.

The paper is an empirical investigation rather than a political brief, but it’s hard to avoid the temptation of trying to draw political lessons from it. First, it suggests that the war is hurting Bush’s popularity – but that in order to really make substantial gains, the Democrats would have to convince waverers not only that the war is going badly, but that it was a misconceived project in the first place. Given the rather remarkable level of cognitive dissonance that many war supporters seem prepared to tolerate, this is a tall order. However, as Erik and Paul note, a major event in the war could have quite substantial positive or negative consequences for Bush’s support. Second, while the war is still a key political issue driving support (or the lack of it) for the administration, the economy may be starting to play a more important role. Structural explanations of public opinion have their limitations of course – they can’t capture the more evanescent political controversies that may affect elections. Even so, there’s good reason to believe that the war and the economy are going to continue to have a powerful effect on people’s voting intentions – and on current form, that can’t be good news for Bush.

fn1. Full disclosure – Erik is a colleague of mine at GWU and a grad-school mate of Kieran and Eszter’s.