Public opinion the war in Iraq and presidential accountability
Salesman for many useful suggestions. We also thank Harlan Greer and Ryan Schooner for valuable research assistance. Public Opinion, the War In Iraq, and Presidential Accountability Abstract How do citizens hold their leader accountable during an ongoing war? We distinguish between two models of accountability-?the “decision-maker” and “managerial” models-?and investigate their implications in the context of the current war in Iraq. We employ a novel measurement model and a database of survey marginal to estimate weekly time-series of aggregate beliefs about various aspects of the war. Insistent with the “decision-maker model, we find that shifts In aggregate beliefs about whether the war was “worth it” have a greater impact on presidential approval than do equivalent shifts in perceptions of war success or approval of the president’s handling of the war. Conversely, aggregate perceptions of the war’s success are much more responsive to casualties and key events than are beliefs that the war was “worth It. ” This suggests that the link from casualties and events to presidential approval Is less direct than previously assumed.
Public Opinion, the War in Iraq, and Presidential Accountability Leaders in emissaries differ from their authoritarian counterparts in the conduct of war in that they require higher levels of consent from the populace to initiate and prolong wars. This need helps to explain a broad array of empirical regularities regarding the fights that they are likely to win quickly even though they are more likely than authoritarian states to accept draws or even defeats as a war goes on (Ritter and Stamp 2002).
Such patterns suggest a broader and more continuous conception of democratic accountability than one based solely on voters’ use of elections to reward incumbents for triumphant wars and punish them for unsuccessful military adventures (e. G. Buenos De Mesquite et al. 2003, Gasbags 1999). In this more extensive view, democratic leaders rely on “contemporary consent”: they need high levels of public support to initiate a war and must maintain that support to carry on a war (Ritter and Stamp 2002).
This assumes a relation between public opinion and policy not unlike that of the “dynamic representation” model for domestic policy (Stemson et al 1995). How, then, does the public Judge a leader during wartime when the outcome of that war is yet unclear? The connection between news from the front and the performance of the incumbent is often ambiguous, providing elite and media discourse with considerable room to shape the formation of political Judgments (e. G. , Broody 1991, Skull et al 2004, Page and Shapiro 1992, Caller 1992).
Thus, the effects of war events and casualty reports on political Judgments may flow through citizens’ beliefs about the war at hand. This logic suggests that we should look beyond the direct links between events, casualties, and evaluations of leaders that scholars have traditionally examined (see 2 Mueller 1970; 1973 for the seminal analyses; see Bearskins 2004 for an overview). It also raises an additional question: what kinds of beliefs about a war affect evaluations of a commander in chief?
We build on theories of accountability for economic policies to develop two models of public accountability during wartime: a “managerial” and a “decision-maker” model. We then evaluate some of the most important empirical implications of these models using a newly created database on aggregate public opinion towards the war in Iraq. Our findings indicate that events and casualty reports affect perceptions of the war’s success but have relatively little direct impact on beliefs that the “war was worth it. Conversely, shifts in aggregate beliefs that the “war was worth it” more strongly shape presidential approval ratings than do swings in beliefs about the war’s success or even whether President George W. Bush “is doing a good Job” in handling Iraq. We take this as evidence that citizens primarily hold the president accountable for his perceived decision-making qualities. Accountability and War Most theoretical analyses of how the public holds incumbents accountable for their deeds in office have focused on economic performance (e. . Barron 1973, Forenoon 1986, Check 1995).
The main assumption in these models is that, all else being equal, citizens prefer incumbents who are competent economic policymakers to those who are not. Competency is, however, not directly observable. Instead, citizens use their appraisals of discernible economic outcomes to indirectly hold incumbents accountable for their aptitude in managing the economy. Precisely what perceptions about the economy are politically consequential is a matter of fierce debate in the literature (e. G. Mencken et al 1992, Check 1995). These debates turn around a variety of questions.
Do citizens draw political consequences based on the state of their personal financial circumstances or the macro-economy? Do they use prospective or retrospective evaluations? Are voters able to tell favorable economic outcomes created through genuine craftsmanship from those produced through temporary manipulation of economic policy instruments? Similar issues arise in holding leaders accountable for their competency in security issues. Leaders, and certainly American presidents, have considerable discretionary powers to wage and manage wars.
All else being equal, citizens prefer a leader with rover abilities to make good decisions in times of crisis and to manage wars well. The competency of a leader is, however, not directly observable and can only be inferred from outcomes. In the long run, mounting casualties and battlefield defeats ought to undermine beliefs among the public that an incumbent is a competent war leader. In the short run, however, it is not at all clear how citizens will draw inferences from individual outcomes that are only opaquely related to a leader’s competence.
Hence, the accountability process is likely to be indirect: citizens form impressions about the war and then use those in their evaluations of the incumbent. This calls into question a traditional mode of analysis that examines the direct impact of events and casualties on presidential evaluations (e. G. , Mueller 1973, Geol. et al. 1994). Instead, we expect that after controlling for subjective appraisals of the war, casualties and important events will have no direct impact on aggregate support for the president.
A similar argument has been advanced and validated empirically in the literature on 4 economic voting: the impact of changes in objective economic outcomes on changes n presidential evaluations disappears after controlling for changes in subjective evaluations of the state of the economy (Mencken et al. 1992). But what kinds of appraisals of a war are politically relevant? Continuing the analogy with economic voting, we may suspect that what matters are citizens’ perceptions of how well the war is going.
Based on such assessments, citizens may conclude that the incumbent is (or is not) sufficiently capable of managing wars. L A potential downfall of this model is that the link between immediate war success and presidential competence is ambiguous. Though the president, as the commander in chief, is ultimately responsible for managing a war successfully, the actual success of the war effort depends on other factors as well, such as the efforts by other administration officials, the military, foreign coalition partners, and fortune.
The president alone, however, is undeniably responsible for making the decision to launch a war. The obvious form of evidence for whether a leader is competent in this regard is his or her decision-making record. Accordingly, citizens may adjust their evaluations of the incumbent if they change their beliefs about whether a past cession to go to war was right in the first place. Building on this notion, the perceive as a wise maker of decisions about whether the use of force enhances the security of the country.
This model A variant to this “managerial” account is that what matters are prospective evaluations of success: I. E. , the perceived likelihood that a military operation will succeed (Skull and Ramsey 2001, Fearer and Geol. 2004, Geol., Fearer, and Riffle 2004). It is, however, unclear how prospective assessments would differ from contemporaneous evaluations of war success. The literature on prospective voting in economics is motivated by the notion that voters form rational expectations about future economic performance based on the cyclical nature of the economy (e. . , Check 1995). There is no equivalent theory about future war success. 5 fits an important empirical regularity: namely, that democracies are disproportionately successful in wars not so much because they have greater resources or pick better strategies but mostly because they generally initiate wars against targets that they can beat relatively quickly (Ritter and Stamp 2002). This may be because public opinion constrains leaders to pick their wars wisely. Nevertheless, a leader has considerable private information when initiating a war.
As a war goes on, elites may debate whether new information about progress in the war validates the wisdom and sincerity of this initial decision. As the balance of elite discourse shifts, so does aggregate support for the war (Caller 1992) and, if the “decision-maker model” holds, aggregate support for the leader. Elite discourse about any given war is, of course, to some degree constrained by the actual things that happen. Yet some types of evaluations of a war are related in a less ambiguous way to events than others and hence less easily manipulated by elites.
Reports of mounting casualties or battlefield losses and wins should have relatively straightforward implications for perceptions of how well a war is going, but their implications for war support and presidential evaluations are less clear. For example, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry was quick to call into question President Bush’s abilities as Commander in Chief based on the disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives in Iraq, whereas the White House immediately sought to absolve Bush room any responsibility by claiming that the weaponry may have disappeared before the arrival of American troops. No one, however, could have credibly claimed that the loss of such “Kerry attacks Bush over Loss of Explosives” David M. Halfling, The New York Times, October 27, 2004, AAA. 6 even if elite messages could (and did) differ on the extent to which it showed incompetence. Further obscuring the relationship between news from the front and conclusions about decision-making skills are the incentives that leaders face to start wars for opportunistic reasons. A leader may want to divert attention from a poorly reforming economy or some other domestic crisis (e. . , Stool 1984, Russet 1990, Downs and Rocker 1994). A leader may also engage in strategic brinkmanship by inducing a crisis to signal competence in security affairs. 3 This signal may be credible if the risky military adventure is such that only a competent executive would undertake it, thereby constraining a candidate whose competence is questionable. For example, President Bush presented himself in the 2004 election campaign as a leader with the courage and strength to go it alone. 4 The war in Iraq lent credibility to his message.
The point here is not to suggest that the war was fought for opportunistic reasons but rather that citizens may be forced to assess the sincerity of a decision to go to war. This provides elites with incentives to question-?and, in turn, defend-?the motives of the incumbent. To summarize, we expect that, compared to perceptions of its success, support for the war in Iraq is shaped to a greater extent by relatively unconstrained elite discourse and hence to a lesser extent by events and casualty reports.
As a consequence, aggregate opinion about the war’s success is likely to be more volatile than opinion about its merits. In this sense, perceptions of the war’s success are more likely to resemble Almond’s 3 This rationale is derived from models of signaling competence through fiscal policy (Oregon and Siberia 1988, Oregon 1990). It is based on the criticism that traditional political business cycle accounts take insufficient account of the rational expectations voters have regarding pre-election tax cuts, increased spending, or (by extension) wars (see also Hess and Orphanages 1995). See, e. G. , “In Debate on Foreign Policy, Wide Gulf or Splitting Hairs? ” James Bennett, The New York Times, September 30, 2003, AH . (1960) depiction of public opinion on foreign policy as a capricious “mood. ” On the other hand, we anticipate that swings in this mood are relatively inconsequential politically in that we expect shifts in aggregate support for the president to follow shifts in aggregate beliefs that the “war was worth it” more closely than they follow shifts in aggregate perceptions of war success.
Moreover, if citizens are truly first and foremost interested in the decision-making skills rather than the management skills of a leader, then we also expect that shifts in support for the war are a stronger redirector for swings in overall presidential Job approval than are shifts in a more direct measure of perceived managerial abilities: perceptions of how well Bush is handling Iraq. This is a stringent test given the virtual identical phrasing of items that measure overall Bush Job approval and his Job performance on Iraq.
In testing these claims, we face a choice between individual- and aggregate-level analysis that has long been the subject of another debate in the economic voting literature. Numerous studies have applied the former approach to the study of economic voting (e. . , Kinder and Kiewit 1979). Others, however, have warned of the potential for endogenously induced bias in such analyses (e. G. , Kramer 1983; Erikson 2004). The same issue extends to the domain at hand. At the individual level, war support and perceptions of war success are difficult to disentangle (Bering’s 2004).
Projection effects tend to frustrate efforts to establish why citizens hold certain opinions. For example, an individual who likes the president for other (partisan) reasons may be more likely both to believe that the war is going well and to believe hat the war was worth it, even without much information about the war (on the latter point, see Skull et al 2004). 8 We circumvent this issue by analyzing changes in aggregate beliefs and controlling for the most obvious alternative explanation that may lead to shifts in assessments of the president: perceptions of the economy.
To be sure, our approach opens us to some potential problems characteristic to analyses of aggregate public opinion data and prohibits us from drawing inferences about individual variation in opinion formation (see Bering’s 1999; 2002). A sizable body of recent research has argued, forever, that analyses of aggregate public opinion data can shed light on how various aspects of public opinion are related to events, to one another, and to public policy (e. G. , Page and Shapiro 1992; Stemson et al. 995). Moreover, aggregate-level analysis suits our substantive research objectives well: politicians care primarily about the aggregation of individual opinions and the extent to which movement in aggregate opinion carries over to evaluations of their personal performances. An important departure from previous studies is that we estimate a model that allows us o use multiple indicators to measure the same concept. This approach increases the points in time for which we have observations.
Moreover, it makes the analysis less dependent on idiosyncrasies such as the question wording of the most frequently asked item and less likely to mistake outliers due to sampling error for temporary shifts in opinion. Our approach does, however, require the assembly of a database of survey marginal and the development of a measurement model to estimate a common time series from these diverse indicators. A Database of Survey Marginal The assembly of response frequency data from assorted surveys has been facilitated by organizations that maintain on-line archives of polling results, often sorted by issue area. We used two such sources: The Polling Reports and the National Journal’s Poll Track. 6 The main criteria for including a question in our database were that it had to provide an unambiguous measurement of one of our concepts of interest and be asked at organization, question wording, answer categories, and marginal for each answer category. Most surveys were conducted over a period of three to four days. We signed the survey to a week by the mid-date of fieldwork. The data run until the last week of October, also the last week before the 2004 election.
Table 1 provides an overview of the data that we collected for each time series. The full data are available from [website deleted]. TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE We have 323 survey items that tap general war support spanning more than two years. The most frequently asked item (32 times) was the CNN/Gallup question, “All in all, do you think the situation in Iraq is/was worth going to war over, or not? ” Eight other items were asked at least fifteen times. Some questions were asked both before and after the start of the war with a simple change of verb.
The data include two sets of questions that make war support explicitly contingent on some other factor. Twenty-three observations condition war approval on the use of ground troops,7 and 52 observations explicitly mention American casualties. 8 As explained in the methods section, we correct for the possibility that these items tap differently into our concept of interest. Www. Pollinator. Com http://national]urinal. Com/ Most frequently asked (13 times) was the CNN/Gallup question “Would you favor or oppose invading Iraq with United States ground troops in an attempt to remove Sad Hussein from power? Most frequently asked (18 times) was the CBS/New York Times item “Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq or not? ” 6 10 The time series for approval of Bush on Iraq begins in mid-January 2003 as too few organizations asked pertinent questions before that time. Most of our observations come from the question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation in Iraq? 9 The question was asked with little variation and great regularity by six different organizations. 0 The data set for perceptions of war success comprises 92 observations for 84 weeks. 11 All but ten observations stem from slight variations to the question, “How would you say things are going for the U. S. In In addition, we collected data on overall evaluations of Bush’s performance as president. Overall Job approval is measured using the standard question: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Job George W. Bush is doing as president? ” This question was asked 323 times by seven survey organizations. Method survey responses, and the same question administered by different survey organizations can CNN/TIME asked a variant: “Do you think President Bush is doing a good Job or a poor job handling the situation in Iraq? ” Newsweek originally asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling policies to deal with the threat posed by Iraq and its leader Sad Hussein? ” Gallup/CNN/USA Today, BBC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, Newsweek, Fox News, and the Pew Research Center. 11 The relative thinness is due partly to a gap in the dataset: in a five-week period allowing January 11 2004 we have only one observation.
A September 19-21, 2003 Gallup poll (N = 1 ,003) indicates that the overwhelming majority of respondents viewed the war as ongoing even after President Bush had declared an end to major combat operations, with 89% of respondents answering “no” to the question, “Based on what you have heard or read about the events in Iraq over the past few weeks, do you think that for all intents and purposes, the war in Iraq is over, or not? ” 12 The most distinctive is a question that CBS asked seven times: “From what you have en or heard, is the United States in control of events taking place in Iraq, or are the events in Iraq out of U.
S. Control? ” 13 News, NBC and Pew. Yield different marginal due to variation in sampling and survey procedures. The methodological task is to disentangle genuine temporal changes from the effects of question wording and random noise. This task is complicated by the fact that the various items are not measured at the same points in time, necessitating a statistical model rather than simple standardizing as a way to separate these sources of variation (see also Stemson 1991). Let Y Jet denote the observed percentage supporting the war (or approving of the president’s handling of it, and so forth) on question J at time t. 4 Our objective is to estimate the changing level of support B (t ) that presumably underlies these observations. Each observation provides a noisy measurement of the publics true aggregate position at a specific time. The following model describes the observations: Y Jet=as+;Job+Jet to which a question understates or overstates war support in comparison to an anchor item. For example, the Fox News question (“Do you support or oppose the United States having taken military action to disarm Iraq and remove Iraqi President Sad Hussein? ) on average generated an estimated 11-percentage point higher level of support for the war than did the Gallup question from Table 1, which mentions neither disarmament nor Sad Hussein. 14 The data are centered around zero (based on the overall mean). A focus on support implies the assumption that trends in opposition largely mirror approval, which is standard in the literature. To check the validity of this assumption, we examined whether there were noticeable trends in the “don’t know’ categories, which there ere not.
J is a “weight” parameter that adjusts for the extent to which a question taps our main concept of interest. It is equivalent to a factor loading. Theoretically, we could estimate this parameter for each item. In practice, however, this would be difficult given the limited amount of data for each individual item. We therefore assume that this parameter is a constant except for items for which we have substantive grounds to suspect otherwise. As mentioned before, the dataset for war support includes questions that specifically mention ground troops and casualties.
These questions ay tap into slightly different aspects of support for the war than do questions that make no explicit mention of either, which we account for by estimating separate weight parameters. The latent level of support follows a random walk process: Bet -? N (Bet -1,12) , with a diffuse prior on Bal . This imposes dynamic structure on the estimation. Our specific assumption about persistence is motivated by arguments in the literature that in finite samples, series such as public mood or presidential approval can be expected to mimic the behavior of a unit root process (e. G. Durra 993, Defoe and Grant 1997). The random portion of the measurement error is described by E Jet -? N (O,0 2) . The models are estimated using MIMIC and implemented in Winning. The models fit the raw data very well. 1 5 Moreover, the estimates correlate well with estimates from an alternative procedure: WAC (Stemson 1991, 1999). 16 The main advantage of our approach is that we obtain a series that is simultaneously smooth and allows for sudden shocks, whereas WAC obscures sudden breaks in the data (and thus 15 In an NOVA analysis on the raw data controlling for fixed effects of the items, the
Abbreviate correlations are . 97 for war support, . 96 for Bush Iraq approval, . 94 for perceptions of success, . 98 for Bush economic approval and . 99 for overall Job approval. 2 the short-term impact of events) or leads to seemingly random zigzagging (when the smoothing option is turned of. A web-appendix provides more detail on the method and comparisons to WAC. Events, Casualties, and Beliefs about the War Figure 1 compares war support with Bush Job approval on Iraq and perceptions of war success. All three series are scaled to represent the marginal from the main Gallup series. The percentage of Americans who Judged the war to be worthwhile hovered at around 55 until late January of 2003. Thus, it appears that the initial efforts by the administration to persuade the public of the war’s necessity had little effect. 18 Support rose sharply starting around the time that Colon Powell gave the speech in the United Nation Security Council that signaled the beginning of the diplomatic endgame. 19 The speech itself did not lead to a one-time shift in support for the war. Instead, such support grew steadily as it became increasingly clear that the U. S. As relatively isolated in its insistence on the use of force.
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