Public Opinion

Bush and the 9/11-Saddam Link

Mar 14 '12

This is a guest post from Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler.

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In response to John’s earlier post showing Bush failed to persuade the public to go to war with Iraq, a Monkey Cage reader writes: “I have a hard time believing that presidential assertion [Iraq involvement in 9/11], 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?”

Such evidence does indeed exist.  Along with the decline in prewar support for invasion illustrated in the prior post, Gary Jacobson’s book also reveals that subscription to the Saddam-September 11th link went down during the same time period when the Bush administration was “selling” both the war and its rationales. Similarly, a 2004 article by Scott Althaus and Devon Largio shows a significant prewar decline in this false belief as well.

Perhaps even more important for our present purposes, the figure below discloses that the decrease in the Iraq-9/11 link from 2001 to 2003 was almost entirely concentrated among the best educated Americans—a pattern that still holds when controlling for partisan and ideological predispositions.  Given that education is one of the best proxies for news reception (see here), this over-time decline among college graduates suggests that attention to elite discourse actually disabused some Americans of their mistaken belief that Iraq was somehow involved in 9/11.  As John Zaller writes, “When the change inducing message has low intensity…attitude change is concentrated among the most highly aware persons.  This is because the highly aware persons are the only ones who meet the first requirement for attitude change: reception of a relevant message.”

(Note: Figures at the bottom of the display represent the number of respondents in each cell, with the September 2001 survey above, and the February 2003 survey below.  Data accessed from the Roper Center’s Data Archive.)

Rather than the Bush administration manipulating the public into the Saddam-September 11th link, then, the real problem seems to be that the corrective message was not strong enough to alter Americans’ initial post-9/11 inclinations to make this link.