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The Story Behind a Polling Mystery

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The Story Behind a Polling Mystery


Published: July 25, 2007

The war in Iraq is the single most important ongoing news story right now. Public opinion about the war is a critical part of that story. That’s why when we had a poll finding about the war that we could not explain, we went back and did another poll on the very same subject. We wanted to make sure we had gotten it right.

It turns out we had gotten it right. Support for the initial invasion of Iraq, as measured by a question The New York Times/CBS News poll has asked since December 2003, increased modestly compared to two months ago.

The Times and CBS News conducted a poll, July 9-17 with 1,554 adults, mostly about Hillary Clinton. There were a few questions about the other candidates, about President Bush and about the war, but most of the poll was about Mrs. Clinton.

The polling took place during a week when there was no shortage of news about the war. Congress was debating the war, the Bush administration issued a report saying the Iraqi government had failed to meet many of the benchmarks it was supposed to meet and prominent Republicans were distancing themselves from Mr. Bush on the conflict.

In the poll, The Times and CBS News posed a standard question that asks respondents to think back to the initial invasion and then judge whether or not the United States military action in Iraq was the right thing to do. “Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the United States have stayed out?”

Forty-two percent of those polled said the United States did the right thing, and 54 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. The last time the question was asked, in May, 35 percent said taking military action against Iraq was the right thing and 61 percent said the United States should have stayed out.

The July numbers represented a change. It was counterintuitive. None of the other war related questions showed change. Mr. Bush’s approval rating had not changed. Nor had approval of his handling of Iraq. The level of support for Mr. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq – the so-called “surge” - was about the same as it had been in past polls. Support for the decision to go to war had risen modestly and nothing else in the poll could explain it.

A Newsweek poll conducted July 11-12, had a similar finding for the same question. But they had not asked it since December, so it is hard to know whether or not their current reading measured any recent change.

Once in a while there is a poll finding that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes we’ll wait to publish the results until we do another poll and ask the question again. But it happens rarely with questions, like this one, that we have a lot of experience asking over a long period of time.

We dug through the numbers, looking for clues. We started to think we had inadvertently influenced the answers to the question about the war by placing it a few questions away from one about Mrs. Clinton not having repudiated her decision in 2002 to vote to authorize the war.

It was just a hunch. But it was all we had. Along with our colleagues at CBS News, we decided to poll again, to ask the war trend question without the possible influence of the question about Mrs. Clinton. It would cost money to go over the same ground again. And none of us wanted to give up a picture perfect summer weekend to do this, but we all knew we had to.

When the second round of results came back, the numbers were nearly identical to the ones found in the poll about Mrs. Clinton. In the poll conducted over the weekend with 889 adults, 42 percent of the respondents said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, 51 percent said the United States should have stayed out.

There was also a drop in the number of people who said the war is going badly. In the latest poll, 66 percent of Americans said things are going badly for the United States in its efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq. That is down from 76 percent who said the same thing in May.

While we didn’t understand a lot more about what was driving the change, we had confidence in the results and were able to report the findings in The Times.

One thing is for sure. We’ll be asking the question again.

The polls were conducted nationwide by telephone and each had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.


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They can't believe their own polls.

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies."

Senator Barack Obama
Senate Floor Speech on Public Debt
March 16, 2006


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