Public Opinion

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

Mar 17 '12

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

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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.