Support for war, Bush slides in area survey

The Columbus Dispatch – September 10, 2006

Despite the Bush administration’s aggressive attempts in recent weeks to justify America’s presence in Iraq, the popularity of the war and the president himself are at all-time lows in the Columbus area.

A new poll on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack shows Bush’s approval rating at 38 percent — the first time it’s dipped below 40 percent in regular surveys for The Dispatch by Saperstein Associates.

Also for the first time, fewer than one in three say the war is worth the toll in American lives and other costs.

Just 36 percent now approve of Bush’s handling of the war. While that’s only a 1 point drop from a year ago, it’s barely half the percentage of April 2003, just after the U.S. invasion.

“From what I’ve seen of it we’re just wasting money and wasting troops,” said poll respondent Michael May, 54, a warehouse worker from the East Side. “You’ve got to think of the families and what they’re going through and what it’s cost them.”

While May’s comments aren’t unusual for a Democrat, many Republicans apparently feel the same way. One out of five disapproves of Bush’s performance, and more than a quarter are critical of his handling of the war.

“The reason we started the war there came out not to be true,” said Mike Aggarwal, a Republican from Dublin who voted for Bush twice.

“We are losing service people there for nothing,” said the 66-year-old retired businessman. “There is no reason for us to stay in there now because the reason we went there for (was) proved false.”

By any measure the poll numbers show that Bush’s sales pitch has not convinced residents of this key political battleground:

* More than 60 percent want either a timetable for American withdrawal or the troops to return home as soon as possible, despite war supporters’ frequent derision of such sentiments as “cut and run.”

* Only a third agree with Bush’s contention that the military action in Iraq is a major part of the war on terrorism.

* Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should either resign or be fired, say 43 percent; 41 percent want him to stay.

* The only slight ray of optimism for Bush is that the percentage of those who say the war is going badly for the U.S. fell 3 points to 60 percent from September 2005 to today.

However, Martin D. Saperstein, president of the Columbus polling firm that bears his name, said Bush can take some solace that his numbers appear to be bottoming out.

“Given the news of the past year out of Iraq, most of which hasn’t been great, you might argue that the decline in support might have been greater,” he said. “But it wasn’t really that great, just a few percentage points.”

Saperstein said Bush appears to have a solid third of Columbus-area residents behind him, and that figure won’t likely budge a great deal.

“It would take something really dramatic one way or the other to change minds.”

The poll shows mild potential political ramifications surrounding the war in this midterm election year. About one-third of respondents say they are less likely to vote for a U.S. House or Senate candidate who supports the war; one in five says a candidate’s pro-war stance makes their backing more likely. However, among independents, arguably the most important voting bloc,

80 percent say a candidate’s war stance makes no difference.

Saperstein said it’s easy to see why Bush is campaigning on the danger posed by terrorists; he gets 50 percent approval for his handling of the war on terrorism. That’s down previous polls in which similar questions were asked but still amounts to Bush’s strongest point.

The telephone poll of 405 randomly selected adults with Columbus phone exchanges was conducted Aug. 31 through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus

4.9 percentage points. The data were weighted slightly to reflect the demographics of Columbus-area adults. The response rate was 29 percent.

Bush appears to have lost support from the much-touted “security moms.” The poll shows a large gender gap in many war-related questions, with women much less likely than men to support Bush or the war.

In a seeming reversal of the 1960s anti-war movement, those ages 18 to 34 are most likely to support Bush and the war.

Although he makes his living conducting polls, Saperstein noted public opinion doesn’t prove Bush is right or wrong; only history will tell.

Poll participant Ruth Leavell, of Westerville, is one of those taking the long view, supporting candidates who “want to stick it out” in Iraq.

“People seem to think we can shoot a few guns and come home. That’s not the way it is,” said Leavell, 77, whose grandson served in Iraq with an Army Reserve unit.

“We should be fighting over there instead of here, even though they started that (9/11 attack) over here,” she said. “We are in a war … a different kind of war. I don’t think there is any way we can pull out right now.”

Eric Thomas, 44, an East Side truck driver, said the U.S. will benefit in the long run from being in Iraq.

“The American presence there has influence on neighboring countries that harbor terrorists,” he said. “We’ll be closer to them and be able to monitor them closer.”

Still, only 39 percent say the Iraq war will ultimately make the U.S. safer.

Stanley Bradley, 57-year-old retired state worker from Lithopolis in Fairfield County, says the war in Iraq has unsettling parallels to the war he served in, Vietnam. As a member of the Navy, he was stationed both in Vietnam and on a refueling ship off the coast.

On the day the Iraq war began, Bradley told a fellow Vietnam veteran, “It sounds like our war. They said we would never get involved in another war unless we had a clear objective and an exit strategy. In Iraq we don’t have either one of these.”