Did George W. Bush Persuade the Public on the Iraq War?

Ezra Klein’s new piece on presidential persuasion is stimulating a lot of debate.  I’ll have more to say.  But let me make one small point in response to Kevin Drum’s critique.  Drum writes:

I also think that Ezra doesn’t really grapple with the strongest arguments on the other side. For one thing, although there are examples of presidential offensives that failed (George Bush on Social Security privatization), there are also example of presidential offensives that succeeded (George Bush on going to war with Iraq).

Drum doesn’t cite any public opinion data.  In this case, the data fails to support his argument.  In the run-up to the beginning of the Iraq War, public support for the war did not increase.  It polarized along party lines, just as happened with Social Security privatization.  Here is a graph from Gary Jacobson’s book:

Although there was a brief rally effect right at the war’s outset, support among both Democrats and independents actually decreased in the months preceding the war.  This is not a case where presidential rhetoric successfully persuaded the public.

9 Responses to Did George W. Bush Persuade the Public on the Iraq War?

  1. Kevin Drum March 13, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    But it persuaded the political class. It persuaded Congress. Public opinion isn’t the only target of presidential talking.

    • John Sides March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      Kevin: That’s plausible. I’d be more confident if we quantify the number of members of Congress who were initially opposed or uncertain decided to support the war. And then if we could determine whether it was Bush’s attempts at persuasion that made them change their minds — as opposed to the views of their constituents or any other source of information.

  2. LFC March 13, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    The graph lines all show a (small-ish) uptick betw. roughly Jan 03 and March 03, i.e. just before the invasion, suggesting that Bush’s speeches (and those of other admin officials) might well have been having some impact in the immediate run-up to the war.

    • John Sides March 14, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      LFC: If you look closely at the dots (i.e., the individual polls), you won’t really see much increase between Jan and March. I think the smoothed line just gives that impression.

      • Rodger A. Payne March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am #

        The administration really starting selling war in late August and early September 2002, so prior data is not especially relevant to the question of presidential persuasion. Andrew Card was quoted in the NYT the 1st week of September 2002: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” In August, Card formed the White House Iraq Group and on the 27th of that month, Cheney spoke to the VFW. From that time until war began in March 2003, Republican support for war increased by over 5% despite a starting position at nearly 80% — and despite open skepticism in NYT/WSJ by Bush I stalwarts James Baker & Brent Scowcroft. At the same time, Independent support for war remained flat at about 60%, and Democratic support remained between 45-50%. I’m pretty sure Gallup polling from the last 25 years showed 2003 as the nadir for Democratic party ID, meaning that at least some ex-Democrats were suddenly telling pollsters they were pro-war Independents or Republicans.

        Some elites may well have become skeptical over time, but media coverage of the case for war was decidedly uncritical and newspaper op-ed pages were overwhelmingly pro-war, especially after the Colin Powell presentation at the UNSC.

        In any case, the selling of the Iraq was remarkable and fairly unique, so we should be careful generalizing from it.

      • LFC March 14, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

        OK, I guess I read too much into the smoothed line. (A. Berinsky’s comment in the follow-up post is pretty much to the same effect.)

  3. Patrick Iber March 13, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I think Kevin’s point there is important. But I also wonder if there’s a difference between persuading the public on “what is to be done” issues and on issues of “interpretation,” where an obvious example would be the responsibility of Saddam Hussein for 9/11. Newspaper reporting from September 2003 (Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane, “Hussein Link to 9/11 Lingers in Many Minds,” Washington Post, 6 September 2003) says that 70% of people still believed that months into the Iraq War. Obviously the Bush Administration lost control of that message as time went on. I’m just guessing, but I would be shocked to learn anything other than that opinion on that matter polarized along party lines as the Iraq War went on. And by 2006 or so, more and more people came to say that the Bush Administration itself had been involved in 9/11…not a reality-based criticism, obviously, but indicative of a change in mood. But back to the larger point: I have a hard time believing that presidential assertion, filtered through staff and the media, etc., didn’t lead the U.S. public to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11. Is there evidence that could prove me wrong about this?

  4. Mihai Martoiu Ticu March 14, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    I don’t think this comparison proves how convincing Bush himself was. Americans have a personal interest in becoming convinced. After all, they all want cheap oil and want their state to be a dominant power in the world. It is much easier to convince someone to commit an armed robbery if you can prove to that person that the chance of being caught (and punished) is 0%. U.S. could not be caught for it. Nobody could sue U.S. in an international court. There is no chance of any Security Council resolution against U.S. And there is no chance of individual economic sanctions against U.S. The U.S. allies expected economic advantages from the invasion, and other advantages just by being part of the same power block (NATO). Thus U.S. could not even expect some symbolic verbal opposition from the ‘friends’. Therefore convincing the Americans to start a risk free war is like convincing a toddler to eat her ice-cream.

  5. Michael Cohen March 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    To Rodger’s point about the selling of the war, which began in Sept 2002 – after that point, Republican support for the war increased from under 80% to more than 90%. Moreover, independents who had steadily moved against the war from January 2002 until September 2002, flatlined in support after that point with an uptick after the war began. Only Democratic support for the war dropped – and not as significantly as one might imagine.

    How does one explain the arrested decline in independent opposition to the war? It’s hard for me to imagine that the full court press put on by Bush et al didn’t matter. Also the assumption being made here is that if support doesn’t increase for the war then it invalidates the persuasion argument, but public opinion was starting from an abnormally high place. Even among Democrats, there was 70% for war in January 2002. One can certainly make the case that the persuasion argument was most effective in maintaining these unusually high rates of support for the idea of preemptive war.

    Finally, Kevin’s point is spot-on: the case for war was as much directed at Congress and an elite audience as it was ordinary Americans. And the fact that support for the war remained so strong – as it shifted from an abstract notion in January 2002 to a more concrete idea – is in of itself impressive. One might expect that as the reality of invasion and occupation became clearer, support for the war would drop. It didn’t. For independents it remained static and for Republicans it increased. Even the drop in support among Democrats from 9/02 to 3/03 was not that large.