According to late February polling conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans — a slim majority — now believe “the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals” in Iraq. That figure is up from 42 percent in September 2007.
The percentage of those who believe the war in Iraq is going “very well” or “fairly well” is also up, from 30 percent in February 2007 to 48 percent today.
The situation in Iraq remains fluid, of course. A surge in violence or in troop deaths could lead to rapid fluctuations in public opinion. But as the war nears its fifth year, the steady upturn in the public mood stands to alter the dynamics of races up and down the ballot.
The repercussions will be most acutely felt in the presidential contest. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton remain committed to a staggered pullout, while Republican John McCain holds steadfast in his support for the Bush administration’s military surge.
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In recent years, election results have tracked perceptions about the progress of the war in Iraq. The Democratic wave in the 2006 congressional elections correlated to a low point in the public’s view of the war. The resurgence of McCain’s candidacy also tracks the decrease in U.S. fatalities in Iraq. Monthly troop deaths have dropped by about two-thirds since the summer of 2007, according to Department of Defense records.
Democrats’ resolute support for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces may soon position them at odds with independent voters, in particular, a constituency they need to retake the White House.
Half of self-identified independents polled now believe the United States should “keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized,” according to polling data assembled by Pew at Politico’s request.
Senior foreign policy aides to Clinton and Obama said in interviews that their candidates have no intention of reconsidering their pledges to withdraw troops from Iraq, despite the waning of public opposition.
As recently as Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pa., Clinton reiterated her pledge to “end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home.” She added, as she has for months, that she would “carefully and responsibly” start the withdrawal of those troops within 60 days of taking office.
“There is no military solution,” Clinton is prone to say, a sentiment echoed by Obama. Obama has also proposed an end date for “removing all combat brigades” from Iraq.
The uptick in public support is a promising sign for Republican candidates who have been bludgeoned over the Bush administration’s war policies. But no candidate stands to gain more than McCain.
“How could Democrats possibly hand McCain a better issue than to let him run on his record of advocating a robust U.S. presence in Iraq with all the positive battlefield news that is filtering out of that country?” asked Michael O’Hanlon, a national security adviser at the Brookings Institution who has been at the center of the Iraq debate since the war’s outset.
“Thinking about where we were at the time of the congressional elections, it’s ironic that the Iraq issue could actually be the one that most favors the Republican and most other issues — including most foreign policy issues — could most favor the Democrats,” O’Hanlon added. “Yet Democrats keep wanting to fight the Iraq debate.”
The positions taken by Obama and Clinton reflect the majority sentiment in their party: Seven in 10 Deocrats continue to believe the war in Iraq is going poorly. Only about a quarter of Democrats support maintaining troop levels until “the situation has stabilized,” according to Pew polling data.
Views of the war in Iraq have long varied depending upon party affiliation, unlike during the Vietnam War. Although even Democratic discontent has ebbed for the first time in more than a year — 29 percent now support keeping troops in, an increase of 8 percentage points since last summer — foreign policy advisers to both candidates dispute the idea that Democrats are in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the majority of Americans over whether the war in Iraq can succeed.
“We have seen at great cost here that the surge has resulted in a reduction of violence. That’s indisputable,” said a top Obama foreign policy adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But we have not seen any of the political progress that will be necessary to have that long-term stability.
“[Obama] believes the best way to induce change is to have this strategic redeployment,” the adviser added.
While Democrats increasingly constitute the bulk of voters who support the withdrawal of troops, the public shift of opinion overall has been dramatic. As many voters now believe that the war is going “well” as “not well” — 48 percent each, according to Pew.
Pew also found that 49 percent favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible, while 47 percent say the troops should stay in until the situation stabilizes — statistical parity between the two positions.
Late February polling conducted by CBS News has also shown that the public view of the war is better than at any point since August 2006. CBS recently found that 43 percent of the country believes the war is going “well” — less than Pew found but still double the level of last June.
Democrats remain in step with the public mood on the question of the decision to go to war. Pew and CBS have found that a majority of Americans, including independents, continue to believe that the choice to wage war with Iraq was “wrong” — a figure that has held for years.
McCain is betting, however, that the public will view the war through a forward-looking lens. For months, he has argued that Democrats intend to “retreat” in Iraq and ensure failure.
The public may soon come to view that as “a correct narrative,” said O’Hanlon, a Democrat whose views on the war have made him the bête noire of many in the anti-war liberal base.
Perhaps as a result of the uptick in support for the war or his own military record, McCain is well-positioned to retake the party’s traditional advantage on national security issues.
Almost half of registered voters now believe it is “very likely” that McCain would be an “effective commander in chief,” according to CBS polling. Less than one-quarter said the same of Obama and Clinton.
In addition, CBS found that a clear majority of Americans were “confident” that McCain could “handle an international crisis” — 56 percent said so for McCain, 47 percent for Obama and only 39 percent for Clinton.
The McCain campaign has signaled plans to continue highlighting his differences with Democrats over Iraq policy. Meanwhile, Democrats plan to continue to frame McCain as a central player in the president’s Iraq policy who is likely to continue in the same direction.
“Sen. McCain is clearly going to try to depict the Democrat, whoever it is, as cut and run,” the Clinton adviser said. “And Sen. Clinton, or whoever is the Democratic nominee, is clearly going to try to depict Sen. McCain as one who would stay there for centuries.”
For the time being, however, McCain can claim that roughly half of the public des not support a troop withdrawal — a first since the 2008 presidential race began.