Support for Bush, Iraq war waning

The Columbus Dispatch – May 23, 2004

Central Ohio is turning against both the war in Iraq and President Bush.

A new poll shows that residents of this crucial presidential battleground have sharply reversed themselves in the 8 1/2 months since the nation marked the second anniversary of the 9/11 attack.

The survey and follow-up Dispatch interviews indicate those in the Columbus area are highly disturbed by recent revelations about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and are no longer willing to accept the continuing American casualties.

Poll participant Marilyn Hannum, 79, of Columbus, has been a lifelong Republican and backed Bush’s decision to go to war. But now she says it’s time for U.S. forces to leave Iraq.

“I really think we’re at the point we should get out,” she said. “I don’t think there will ever be peace in Iraq.”

Like Hannum, many have changed their mind. In a September poll of the Columbus area, 54 percent said they favored staying the course in Iraq even with hundreds more American casualties. Now only 38 percent express that sentiment.

During the same period, the percentage saying the war is worth the cost in U.S. lives fell from 51 to 38.

“There’s too much bloodshed, said respondent Cynthia Riley, 42, a former bus driver from the North Side. “It could have been done another way, peacefully.”

Riley, whose brother-in-law is an Army trainer at Fort Polk, La., also said, “The (prisoner) abuse bothers me. Why did they cover it up?”

While Bush’s poll numbers also have suffered since September, the decline wasn’t quite as dramatic.

Approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped 11 percentage points to 38 percent. His overall approval rating has sunk 6 points to 44 percent since September — but is 17 points below the that of April 2003, shortly after the war started.

Pundits have pointed out that presidents virtually never win another term when their approval rating dips below 50 percent less than six months before the election. Most national polls have Bush’s approval in the mid-40s.

“It’s early, and lots can happen between now and the election,” said Columbus pollster Martin D. Saperstein. His company, Saperstein Associates, conducted the poll for The Dispatch and WBNS-TV (Channel 10).

“This reflects a snapshot in time,” Saperstein cautioned, “and this is a situation that is extremely fluid. Events in Iraq or elsewhere in the world could change the results dramatically, sometimes overnight.”

One finding that surprised Saperstein: Bush gets less support for his dealing with Iraq — 38 percent — than his handling of the economy — 41 percent.

“The conventional wisdom was that the war would be Bush’s strong suit and the economy would be his weak suit,” Saperstein said. “That’s a pretty significant turnaround.”

The poll of 403 randomly selected adults with Columbus telephone exchanges was conducted Monday through Thursday. The margin of sampling error is 4.9 percent.

Respondent Anita Kupka, 52, of New Albany, said she supports the troops but has never believed it was necessary for them to go to Iraq. She accused the Bush administration of “playing on our feelings about 9/11” to justify the war.

“I think it’s a very sad situation,” said Kupka, a software consultant. She said she never trusted Bush or his father, President George H.W. Bush, who went to war with Iraq in 1991.

“This is finishing what Daddy started,” Kupka said. “I think their idea was, ‘Let’s have a war and get people to rally around it and not worry about how our own country is going to pot.’ ”

But Charles A. Dozer, 69, of Columbus, said he has no doubts about how Bush is handling the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq.

The retired banker said the prisoner-abuse scandal is a “virtual nonevent” compared with the overall situation and the efforts to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The difference of opinion between Kupka and Dozer illustrates the gender gap that shows up consistently in the poll numbers.

For example, 83 percent of the female respondents said they were bothered at least a fair amount about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, compared with 60 percent of males who reacted the same way.

More than two-thirds of men approved of Bush’s handling of the war on terror, but fewer than half of women did.

Many of the same differences are found between younger and older respondents, with the latter group more likely to support the war and the president.

For instance, 38 percent of the respondents older than 54 said Bush was trying to cover up the abuse of prisoners in Iraq, instead of investigating the allegations. But 63 percent of those between 18 and 34 suspected a cover-up.

Other key findings:

* While one of the key justifications for attacking Iraq was to protect the United States from terrorists, those taking the poll said by almost a 4-to-1 margin that the threat of terrorism against the country has actually increased because of the war.

* Fewer than four out of 10 respondents want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until the country is a stable democracy. More than half want control turned over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible.

* About one in 10 respondents said a member of their immediate family is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, their skepticism about the war and Bush were almost identical to that of the rest of the poll-takers.

* Independent voters made up only 8 percent of those surveyed, which means their totals are less reliable statistically. Bush fared badly with this key group. Almost three-fourths disapproved of his job performance, with virtually half expressing strong disapproval. And by a 2-to-1 ratio they don’t want Bush re-elected.

* Respondents said the blame for the prisoner mistreatment in Iraq falls on those who did the actual abuse, and even more on their immediate superiors.

* Only about one in four said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should resign or be fired over the abuse. Among Democrats, 39 percent said the defense secretary should lose his job.