The Polling Center: Agreeing on Bad News

The polarization was striking: 80% of Texas Democrats were worried about staying too long in Afghanistan, while 76% of Texas Republicans were worried about leaving Afghanistan too soon. In the comparable national poll question, there was a notable but less striking split, with 61% of Democrats choosing a smaller increase, with 65% calling for a larger increase.

A bit of poking around at the national poll numbers in the Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday didn’t contain many surprises in terms of the differences between Texas and the country as a whole; go figure, Texas is less approving of the president overall (national approval 56 versus a Texas approval of 41 in the last UT/Trib poll), with the “strongly disapproves” in Texas a much crankier 44% compared to only 29% in the national poll. However, as the Obama administration continues a search for the new strategy, and the media speculates about what the extended review will ultimately produce, it’s worth noticing a pronounced ambivalence about the US military action in Afghanistan that is strikingly consistent across both the Texas and national surveys. Call it a purple hued snapshot of public opinion.

The UT/Texas Tribune poll was designed to elicit a longer-term, retrospective assessment of US military action in Afghanistan. We asked respondents to assess whether the threat of terrorism against the US had increased, decreased, or stayed about the same as a result of “US military action.” The Post/ABC poll retrospective question focused more on whether “Obama’s policies” were making the US safer, less safe, or not making much of a difference. While the Post/ABC phrasing may have picked up some specific assessment of Obama (as they probably intended), the basic responses were very similar: in Texas, 28% said US military action had increased the threat, compared to 22% in the national poll who said that “Obama’s policies” had made the US less safe; 21% of the Texas sample said the threat had decreased while 27% of the national sample agreed that the country was safer. Given the respective margin of errors in the poll, these are pretty close, and similar, splits.

But significant majorities in both polls — 44% in Texas, 49% nationally — thought the threat had stayed about the same. Whether these reflected a narrow assessment of Obama or a broader assessment of strategy in Afghanistan, the results show widespread skepticism about the value of the war effort, at least in terms of its initially stated goals, even among Texans that we might reasonably expect to be a more reflexively hawkish or at least defensive of the Bush-initiated invasion. In fact, while Democrats were predictably much more skeptical about the war in our poll (75% of the Democrats polled thought military action had either increased or had no effect on the threat of terrorism), even Republicans were almost evenly split, with a small plurality, 37%, also judging that military action hadn’t had an impact. (The independents being much discussed in blogs across the country this week were also pretty skeptical in Texas: 78% of them also thought the war had either increased or had no effect on the terrorist threat.)

So while the broad outlines of Texas public opinion (to say nothing of the rhetoric in the Republican primary) certainly looks at least out of step with (and in some corners downright hostile to) the governing majority in Washington, there seems to be something of a consensus in one area: what the US has been doing in Afghanistan isn’t working.

The policy and political difficulties in moving forward are manifest, though, as soon as you look at assessments of what to do next. In the UT/Trib poll, after much discussion, we took a schematic approach to try to get at people’s basic impulses about what the US might do in Afghanistan. The survey was conducted October 21-27, so the lead up to the poll suggested a lot of background noise. There was high point of leaking about the McChrystal recommendations as well as what appeared to be the Biden recommendations, making any kind of detailed questions seemingly of limited value — spin saturated coverage, and the real policy options being considered were not clear at the time (even less so than right now). The limited about of space we had on the survey to spend on the subject meant we didn’t have the option of trying to sort through the underbrush on the survey.

So we asked a question about the US’s future prospects in Afghanistan adapted from another national poll that seemed it would elicit a good gut level response. “Which concerns you more: the United States will stay in Afghanistan too long, or the United States will leave Afghanistan to soon?” The responses — 52% worried about staying too long, 49% leaving too soon — were essentially evenly split.

The Post/ABC poll found a similar split when they asked a more specific question about the size of a troop increase. The national sample was just as evenly split when offered the option of sending a smaller number or a larger number of troops in the event Obama orders more forces to Afghanistan.

There was evidence of the partisan divide in the United States, with Democrats being generally more reluctant about military intervention than Republicans. But the polarization in the Texas results was striking: 80% of Democrats were worried about staying too long, while 76% of Republicans were worried about leaving too soon. In the comparable national poll question, there was a notable but less striking split, with 61% of Democrats choosing a smaller increase, 65% of Republicans calling for a larger increase. (You can see a graphic of these breakdowns here.)

The broad consensus that things have not gone well up to this point in Afghanistan clearly has shaped the process and substance of the reassessment currently underway. While there has been carping about the time the Obama administration has taken to review the policy, the bipartisan dissatisfaction with the status quo has largely allowed them to take the time for a lengthy review (and some additional maneuvering, judging from Secretary of State Clinton’s chat with Karzai yesterday). As far as public opinion goes, recognizing the dissatisfaction was the easy the part for the Obama administration. The partisan nature of these evenly matched but opposite views of the future, however, suggests that whatever the results of the President’s deliberations, he won’t have nearly as much consensus once he announces what the US will try next in Afghanistan.

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