How Interested Is the Public in the Iraq War?
by Steve Sailer
UPI, March 25, 2003
March 25, 2003 (UPI) -- This is part of a continuing series of articles on war and public opinion.
Pollsters are experts at finding out how the public feels about the war. (Support has surged to more than 70 percent according to both Gallup and CBS/New York Times polls.) Yet, they can have a harder time determining how much the public feels.
A variety of evidence -- such as the broadcast networks' rapid shift back from war coverage to regular programming last week and the relative paucity on the streets of either flags or protest symbols -- suggests that Americans may be less focused on the war than the news media tend to assume.
The fundamental truism of the survey research business is that most members of the public are nice people and thus tend to tell interviewers what they think the researchers want to hear. When opinion pollsters call, respondents sometimes try to help out the interviewers by coming up with clear-cut opinions on the weighty controversies of the day, even if they actually were more wrapped up in the NCAA's March Madness or in what Jennifer Lopez was wearing to the Oscars.
Gallup, fortunately, makes a conscientious effort to quantify the public's degree of interest as well as its attitude. In a poll last weekend of 1,020 adults (margin of error plus or minus 3 points), 63 percent claimed they were following the Iraq situation "very closely" and 32 percent said "somewhat closely." Four percent admitted to "not too closely" and 1 percent "not at all."
Of course, these are self-descriptions and it's not clear how rigorously respondents are judging themselves. (Another research industry adage is that respondents will try to make themselves look good by assenting to whatever seems most high-minded.) To put this 63-percent figure in perspective, Gallup had earlier found that 53 percent said they were "very closely" following the issue of high gasoline prices.
This compares with the 70 percent who told Gallup they were "very closely" following the first Iraqi war just after it began in January 1991. Public attention fell during the course of that six-week war. By the start of the conclusive ground phase of Desert Storm, the percentage describing themselves as "very closely" paying attention had dropped to 53 percent.
Those with cable television who have gotten wrapped up in the war reports on American cable news networks (such as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC) might be surprised by how little coverage the main broadcast networks have been providing in the past few days. The Big Four (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox) had been planning to devote several days to nothing but war coverage, as they had after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Yet, they began giving up after about 24 hours and returning to regularly scheduled programs. On last Thursday evening, just one full day after the attack on Saddam Hussein's family bunker, a rerun of the popular sitcom "Friends" won its time slot in Nielsen's overnight ratings, beating the war coverage on ABC and Fox and the NCAA basketball on CBS.
By Saturday, citizens without cable TV were finding little war news on television.
The financial wisdom of the networks' course of action was confirmed on Saturday night, when CBS pre-empted its normal 10 p.m. series for Iraq coverage. The other three networks provided entertainment programming. All three outdrew CBS' war news.
Of course, ratings are up for the cable news networks. So is the use of their affiliated Web sites. ComScore Media Metrix reported that traffic to CNN.com and FoxNews.com tripled last Thursday over the previous four-week average. Yet, the importance of the Internet should not be exaggerated. Gallup found that 4 percent said the Web was their "main source" of war news.
Moviegoing was down last weekend compared with last year, but that was probably more due to the poor quality of new releases (which were so mediocre that "Bringing Down the House" wound up being the top-grossing film for the third consecutive weekend) than to obsession with the war. The overall box office take was up compared with the same weekend in 2000 and 2001.
In Los Angeles, which is more hawkish than San Francisco but more dovish than most of the rest of America, few people were making an effort to visually display an opinion on the war, for or against.
During the L.A. Lakers' last three runs to the NBA title, it has become a Southern California tradition to display Laker flags on plastic holders mounted in car windows. After Sept. 11, a large minority of local residents adapted that custom and displayed American flags for much of the rest of the year 2001.
As of Sunday afternoon, however, well under 5 percent of cars were flying these flags. Almost no houses were showing the flag. The street corner flag vendors who had been common after the terrorist atrocities were mostly missing.
Similarly, very few cars or houses were displaying any kind of anti-war symbol.
In the Atlanta area, where George W. Bush is more popular with white residents than he in Los Angeles, a local citizen told UPI: "There are plenty of flags in the Atlanta area. I've noticed a sizeable increase over the last few days, but not nearly to the level of Sept. 11."
Showing the flag might become more common now that American soldiers have begun suffering casualties and the public's emotions become more engaged. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that opinions on the war may not be as fervent as is widely assumed.