Maybe Bush’s Case for the Iraq War Worked After All

This is a guest post by Georgetown political scientist Michael Bailey.


Can presidents influence public opinion?  This is one of the biggest questions in political science because how we answer the question shapes what we think presidents should and will do with their time in office.

Ezra Klein, channeling George Edwards, says no.  Kevin Drum says maybe.  John Sides followed up, arguing that Bush succeeded only in polarizing voters on Iraq, not in increasing support for the war in general.

Moving public opinion about the war was not the only thing Bush was trying to do.  He was also trying to move public opinion about him.  And, there’s good reason to believe he succeeded, at least at the point of the 2002 elections.

The figure below shows what a winner the war was for Bush in 2002.  Democrats (measured by party affiliation in 2000) who favored the war in 2002 increased their favorability toward Bush by about 20 points.  Democrats (measured in 2000) who opposed the war in 2002 did not warm up to Bush.  The pattern is similar for Republicans, with Republicans who favored the war diverging from those who opposed the war.  Since more people favored the war than opposed it in 2002, the net effect was to boost Bush favorability.

Clyde Wilcox and I run this data through a host of statistical models in a working paper.   The key idea is that by using panel data we can avoid the problem of explaining Bush popularity with contemporaneous approval of the Iraq War, given that approval of the Iraq War in 2002 was almost certainly determined in important part by what people thought of Bush in 2002.

However we slice the data, the general point is clear: the war affected Bush’s popularity.  Those who liked the war, liked Bush more.  Those who didn’t like it, didn’t like him more.  Our paper builds on earlier work Clyde and I did with Monkey Cage co-founder Lee Sigelman where we found similar patterns with Clinton and gays in the military in 1992 and 1993.

We’re still at work, and are curious to read in the comments if you read the results differently.   We think the bottom line, though, is that Bush did “persuade” people with the war in Iraq.

7 Responses to Maybe Bush’s Case for the Iraq War Worked After All

  1. Mike March 17, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    It sounds to me like you proved that Bush associated himself with the war in people’s minds. That’s something, but it’s not the same as Bush “persuading” people.

  2. Gary March 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    Bush definitely persuaded the people to go to war against terror with the false flag 911 operation that killed a whole flock of birds with one stone.

  3. Kendall Kaut March 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Does this definitively prove that the bully pulpit played or did not have an effect on moving individuals viewpoints? Could elite opinion and Republican solidarity on supporting the war have caused Republican individuals to mirror those viewpoints as opposed to Bush’s work to persuade individuals? Bush clearly pushed for the war and gained support but did a strong push by Bush actually change opinions? I’d be interested in how approval changed immediately after major speeches, Powell’s speech at the U.N. and Cheney’s appearances on Sunday talk shows. Those all seem to be major uses of the bully pulpit by the administration and would more closely show a link to the affect the bully pulpit has in generating changes in approval. Overall I think the paper is strong.

  4. Alan T. March 17, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    Perhaps voters who favored the Iraq war viewed President Bush more favorably because he did something (started a war) that they wanted, and voters who opposed the war viewed President Bush no less favorably because he did something they expected. This hypothesis is consistent with both of your graphs (Michael Bailey’s and John Sides’). It suggests that just about any accomplishment will increase a president’s popularity.

  5. Davis X. Machina March 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    I have always said it wasn’t a war so much as the world’s most expensive campaign commercial…..

  6. tomtom March 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    I’m puzzled. There is a lot of doubt whether presidential speech does much to persuade people, but is anyone questioning presidential acts?

    Carter presided over a failed rescue mission during the hostage crisis and it hurt him. Johnson presided over a failed war and it hurt him worse. Truman fought a war in Korea to a stalemate and it made him pretty unpopular. Roosevelt did something/anything/whatever works to battle the Great Depression and it helped his popularity.

  7. Milesthedog March 19, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Are the critics of the President’s power to persuade asking this power to do too much to prove it is valid? Most of the discussion focuses on Pres. speeches etc. and public opinion polls as if the only way to demonstrate the Pres’s power to persuade was to show a movement in public opinion. I wonder if any one source of influence could pass this test?