How Did You Vote During the War, Daddy?

Public disenchantment with the war probably won't matter in November.


The war in Iraq is increasingly unpopular: A May ABC News/Washington Post poll found 62 percent of Americans saying it wasn't worth fighting. Nor is the American public thrilled about the prospect of a fresh war with Iran, however much it might break the monotony on Fox. Polled support for military action against Iran was about 13 percent in an April Opinion Research/CNN poll, and a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll the same month found 54 percent of Americans don't trust President Bush to make the right decision when it comes to managing the mullahs.

This dissatisfaction over foreign policy, past, present, and future, is driving a general dissatisfaction with Bush and his party, with 69 percent of Americans saying the country is off track and 56 percent saying they'd prefer the Democrats to be running Congress. Since voters' next chance to steer the ship of state is this November, surely it's conventional wisdom that the party that stands for the war will be tossed out on its ear.

But it's not. Many professional poll watchers and experts on public opinion and war are confident that the public's foreign policy anxieties are apt to have a surprisingly small effect on the results in this year's congressional and Senate races. A general dissatisfaction with Bush and the Republicans, of which dissatisfaction with the war is a part, might lead to major Republican losses. But it might not. Whether those awful GOP poll numbers will result in even the loss of the 15 net seats the Democrats will need to take over the House is still hotly debated among pollwatching professionals.

A nonprofessional might imagine that 69 percent dissatisfaction should lead to a rout for the party controlling both houses and the presidency. But it isn't always so: In 1984, for example, Democrats were beating Republicans by 15 points in a September survey of general support, but ended up losing 16 House seats in November.

Nor do political entrepreneurs seem to be leaping on the war issue in massive numbers. There are some angry Democratic primary challengers making incumbent support of the war, or lack of sufficient energy in fighting it, their big issue—most prominent among them the Daily Kos–approved Ned Lamont, who is aiming to take down former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Republican's Democrat, in the contest for his Senate seat. But the Democrats' power centers, including even anti-war stalwart Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, are supporting incumbents against more staunchly anti-war challengers.

"If we are going to seize this moment," says Boxer, "we must focus on the vast number of differences we have with our Republican opponents, not the few we have with each other." Progressive Democrats of America, a group dedicated to moving the party in a leftward, more anti-war direction, has found fewer than 15 Democratic primary challengers worthy of its endorsement.

The Iraq war's failure to have an electoral impact would not be unique. John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and an expert on war and public opinion, points to the 1970 midterm elections. Coming on the heels of an extremely unpopular Cambodia invasion, and with Vietnam in general acting as a stinking albatross around the GOP's neck, the election cost the Republicans only 12 seats in the House—fewer than the Democrats need this time around to win control.

Why does such huge public dissatisfaction with the war, and with Congress, seem likely to have such small effect on this year's elections?

Some possible explanations:

  • We hate Congress, but love our congressman. Voters' dissatisfaction with Congress in general doesn't mean dissatisfaction with their own representatives. In the last four elections House incumbent reelection rates have exceeded 95 percent. Generic satisfaction with Congress has, to put it mildly, never been anywhere near that high.
  • The war issue doesn't split neatly along party lines. Remember, 29 Democrats in the Senate and 81 in the House voted for the original Iraq war resolution.
  • Voter rationality. We know full well, however upset we may be about the war, that our one representative or senator has little power to do anything about it. Thus, it is not likely to be a decisive factor in how we choose to vote.
  • Congressmen are afraid to flip-flop. You might expect to see many incumbents, even Republicans, running away from an unpopular war. They aren't. Some analysts suggest that candidates who supported the war are afraid to seem like insincere flip-floppers by turning against it.

I will treasure the moment when an angry congressman turns on the flip-flopping public: Dammit, you used to like the war too! As Bertolt Brecht put it, the legislature might wish it could "dissolve the people and elect another." But the public isn't necessarily inconsistent: Even before the fighting started, a January 2003 Pew poll found that support for war in Iraq fell from 76 percent to 29 percent if it were posited that Saddam Hussein had no hidden WMDs.

  • Who cares what the public thinks? With gerrymandering as efficient as it is, many Republican candidates only have to care what Republicans think, and Republican voters are not as upset about Iraq as are Americans at large.
  • Being against the way the war turned out is one thing, but deciding what to do now is another. Given the regrettable one-way nature of time, sentiment against the war can be turned into political action only if it is linked to sentiment for something.

What do you, Mr. Voter, want us to do? Get out now? Set a date-certain phased withdrawal? Kick ass harder to win win win? Public opinion expert Peter Feaver, now advising Bush, thinks the real problem is not that Americans are tired, or think the war was a mistake, or are wimpily averse to casualties, but that they aren't confident Bush has a rugged enough end game that is sure to achieve all our war goals, whatever those might be at this point.

  • Americans aren't really that opposed to the war. As Carlos Alvarez of ANSWER, the controversial anti-war rally organizer, told Los Angeles Alternative in May, "by giving young Americans the choice of whether or not to fight, we've also given them the option of whether or not to care." There is little on the line for the average American in Iraq, and it's cost-free to tell a pollster you don't like the war. But when it comes to, say, protesting in the streets, the numbers have fallen by more than half since the war's beginning in most places.

The relative reactions from Washington to public fussing over immigration vs. public fussing over war (the former has generated a fair amount of political pandering, the latter is mostly ignored) could just mean that, as a nation, we hate Mexicans more than we love our troops.

I've always wanted to believe the old saw about our being a peace-loving nation, the coiled rattlesnake that hates war and is only reluctantly thrown into it (again and again and again). Recent poll results have filled this noninterventionist American patriot with a warming sense of camaraderie for my fellow Americans. A Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations survey late last year found 42 percent of Americans saying the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Only 30 percent claimed to think so in 2002.

The disaster in Iraq seems to have summoned something grand in the American spirit. It nearly caused a tear to form in my eye when I realized that my countrymen can still, when their backs are to the wall, rise to the occasion, answer the call, and say into the receiver, with no fear and no hesitation, "Strongly disagree!" in response to the statement, "I approve of how the president is handling the war in Iraq." Beyond that, well, sometimes the great power of the people is best kept at the ready, not expended foolishly at the ballot box.