Sunday, August 31, 2008

Maybe Palin is just ordinary?

One of the odder things about John McCain's latest present to the electorate is that she apparently had no particular views on the Iraq war until pulled out of obscurity. From Salon's War Room:

In an interview with Alaska Business Monthly shortly after she took office in 2007, Palin was asked about the upcoming [Iraq] surge. She said she hadn't thought about it. "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq," she said. "I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan in place; I want assurances that we are doing all we can to keep our troops safe."

Seven months into the surge, she still either had not formed any opinion on the surge or the war or just wasn't sharing. "I'm not here to judge the idea of withdrawing, or the timeline," she said in a teleconference interview with reporters during a July 2007 visit with Alaska National Guard troops stationed in Kuwait. "I'm not going to judge even the surge. I'm here to find out what Alaskans need of me as their governor."

That's a little weird, since Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, has dispatched countless soldiers to Iraq, including many who did not make it back. And Palin's own son, Track, is an infantry soldier who could go there any time.

Perhaps this lack of opinion is not really so odd -- except in a candidate who might suddenly find herself the President of the United States. Apparently her lack of views was really the default position for many people until U.S. soldiers started coming back from Iraq in body bags or maimed in body and mind.

David Moore, while working for the Gallup poll, designed an experiment in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Conventional polling found substantial majorities of people in the U.S. in favor of the war -- something around 59 percent in favor, 38 percent against, and only 3 percent undecided. As a test, the pollster then asked each set a contrary question: for those in favor of an invasion, would you be upset if it didn't happen? For those against, would you be upset it the U.S. does attack Iraq?


The graphic shows the somewhat surprising result.

Only 29 percent of Americans supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn't come about, while 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. Another 38 percent, who had just expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just opined. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn't care one way or the other.

What this experiment revealed was that instead of a war-hungry public, Americans were evenly divided over whether to go to war — three in ten in favor, three in ten opposed, with a plurality willing to do whatever the political leaders thought best.

Moore concludes that the result shows the "the absurdity of much public opinion polling." And it does. In the interests of accommodating an interviewer, people express off-the-top-of-the-head opinions they have not seriously considered and which they only hold loosely.

I see a lot of lessons. This finding certainly reminds me that, because polls are taken seriously by the media and others who pay for them, I shouldn't horse around in answering them. (For unknown reasons, I get polled fairly frequently.) Even if I think the question is stupid, I should try to find a way to answer it so my response leans toward my actual opinion.

For the peace movement, we need to remember that when we're told public opinion is against us, we may really be seeing that people just hope that their leaders know what they are doing. Until they learned better from bitter experience, the public trusted the rulers enough to go to war. That trust having eroded, it will not be rebuilt easily. The peace movement didn't create the erosion, but we can built upon, encouraging skepticism about additional wars.

And for the pollsters, I throw back a question: if you knew that public support for the Iraq war was that soft -- why didn't you tell the world that most people really didn't have an opinion on going to war? War is irrevocable. When we figure out later that it was wrong, the dead are still dead. Pollsters' failure to put out their very lukewarm finding seems to verge on criminal when we contemplate the horrors this ill-considered war has unleashed.

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