Special Release: American Opinion on the War

by Frank Newport, David W. Moore, and Jeffrey M. Jones

Three-quarters of Americans approve of the decision to go to war with Iraq -- almost the same as the 79% who approved of the first Persian Gulf War as it got underway a little more than 12 years ago.

Gallup's first read on American public opinion after the official beginning of military action comes from our Thursday night poll, which shows that 76% of Americans support the war. That's within three points of the 79% who approved of the nascent war on Iraq ("Operation Desert Storm") on the night of Jan. 16, 1991.

The current level of support for war reflects the general rally effect that is usual in these types of situations. Approval for the concept of military action against Saddam Hussein had been running in the high 50% range prior to Monday night's "ultimatum" speech by President George W. Bush, at which time it jumped to 66%. Now, as noted, it's up another 10 points to 76%.

Most polling prior to this week's dramatic developments had shown that many Americans would have preferred more U.N. involvement in the decision to go to war, and to have given the inspection process more time. But much of this doubt is now absent. Seventy percent of Americans say that the decision to begin military action was the right thing to do, while 27% say the United States should have waited longer. In January 1991, a slightly higher number, 79%, said it was right to begin war when then-President Bush did, while 18% said the United States should have waited longer.

Public Expectations About the War . . .

Americans are more optimistic that the current military action will be short and have relatively few casualties than they were at the beginning of the 1991 war. The current level of optimism most likely stems from the short duration of the war 12 years ago, in which there were relatively few combat injuries and deaths.

Last night's poll found about a third of Americans, 34%, believing the war would last less than a month, including 7% who expect the war to be over within a week. Another third, 34%, predicted the war would last between one and three months, while the remaining third thought the war would take longer than three months.

Most Americans also expect relatively few casualties. About two-thirds predict that at most, several hundred Americans will be killed or injured in the war -- 41% saying fewer than 100, and 24% saying "several hundred." Another 16% predicts up to 1,000 casualties, while 11% says several thousand or more.

More broadly, the vast majority of Americans believe the United States will win the current war with Iraq, and will do so easily. Gallup's Monday night poll, conducted after President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam, found 79% of Americans saying the United States would be successful in its goal of removing him from power. Only 13% believe it will be unsuccessful.

Despite apparent media and government uncertainty about whether Saddam survived a targeted attack Wednesday night, most Americans -- as of Thursday night -- believe that Saddam is still alive. Asked if the war will be a success if Saddam is removed from power but is not captured or killed, a bare majority of 52% says yes, while 43% of Americans disagree.

Fifty-three percent of Americans interviewed on Monday night said that removing Saddam from power would make the United States safer from terrorism, while only 38% said they felt it would make the United States less safe.

Fear of Terrorist Backlash . . .

On Thursday night, 34% reported feeling a sense of danger where they live and work as a result of the start of the war. Despite the Sept. 11 attacks and the government's elevated terrorism alert since the war began, Americans' current level of personal concern about terrorism is only slightly greater than the 27% who felt at risk from terrorist acts as the war got underway in January 1991.

Reasons for Public Support of War . . .

The United States' current confrontation with Iraq fits with the public's pre-existing attitudes and emotions. Americans have been negatively oriented toward Iraq and Saddam for a number of years. As long ago as 1991, a significant majority of Americans felt that the Persian Gulf War should have been continued until Saddam was removed from power.

According to recent polling, Americans' reactions to the war appear to be closely linked to their perceptions about Iraq's role in supporting or sponsoring international terrorism. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans say that Saddam supports terrorist groups, and most of those say that this is one of the reasons why they support war against Iraq. About half of Americans say that Saddam was directly involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Americans are also highly likely to agree that war with Iraq is justified in order to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam's rule.

Variations in Public Support . . .

There are significant differences in support for the war across various subgroups of the U.S. population. Partisanship is the most important factor. Republicans have been much more likely to support war than Democrats have been over the last six months, and that difference persists as war has gotten underway. The Thursday night poll found 96% of Republicans approving of the decision to go to war, compared with 61% of Democrats.

Americans with postgraduate degrees and blacks have lower levels of support for military action against Iraq than the national average. These relationships hold even when taking into account the fact that many members of these two groups are Democratic in their partisan orientation.

A Gallup analysis in the weeks leading up to war demonstrated that approval of the job Bush is doing has an independent influence on support for the war, nearly as strong as the effect found for partisanship.

More religious Americans show stronger support for war than those who are less religious. This is particularly true for white, born-again Protestants. This pattern is mostly attributable to the fact that the highly religious tend to be ideologically conservative and Republican in their partisan orientation.

Men continue to be more likely than women to support the war. The gap is not as large as observed in past wars, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Last night's poll shows 78% of men and 74% of women approving of the decision to go to war with Iraq. By way of contrast, in a poll conducted just after the 1991 war began, 87% of men approved of the decision, compared to 74% of women. The long-standing gender gap in support for military action may be reduced at least in part because of women's concern over terrorism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Historical Comparisons to 1991 Gulf War . . .

Americans gave the first Persian Gulf War high levels of support throughout the roughly six-week duration of that conflict, establishing a reasonable expectation that the same might occur for the current war. In the final few days before the Persian Gulf War began, only a bare majority of Americans, 55%, favored the idea of waging war against Iraq in order to drive that country out of Kuwait. But on Jan. 16, 1991 -- the night Bush informed the nation that an attack had just been launched -- 79% of Americans told Gallup they approved of the action. Public backing of the U.S. air campaign against Iraq carried over to the ground war Bush authorized in the final days of the conflict in late February -- a maneuver designed to drive the invading Iraqis out of Kuwait. At the time, 84% of the public approved of this decision.

Not only is the 76% initial support level for the current war in Iraq highly similar to the 79% seen at the outset of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it is nearly identical to the 78% of Americans who stood behind President Harry Truman's decision in June 1950 to send U.S. ground troops into Korea at the outset of the three-year Korean War. Two months later, a majority of Americans still agreed with the decision to send troops to the Korean peninsula, but by January 1951, nearly half the public (49%) said that the intervention was a "mistake." Thereafter, public support for the Korean intervention, which ultimately resulted in a heavy toll of American casualties, was mixed at best.

Impact on Perceptions of George W. Bush . . .

Americans are rallying behind Bush's decision to send the United States to war with Iraq, and can also be expected to rally behind the president more generally. In 1991, public approval for the way the elder Bush was handling his job as president surged 18 points, going from 64% immediately pre-war to 82% in the first few days after it commenced. As of last weekend, Bush's approval rating stood at 58%, but based on the historical patterns in times of war and national crisis, polling this weekend will most likely show this figure at a higher level.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Monday night after Bush announced his ultimatum to Saddam found that roughly a third of Americans who supported the concept of going to war did so only because they were lending their support to Bush, even while they were unsure if war was the right course.

The high levels of support for the war reflect the tendency of Americans to defer to the federal government in matters of war. The American public often rallies around the policy being carried out. In Vietnam, Americans continued to approve of the various strategies followed first by President Lyndon Johnson and then President Richard Nixon, even at a time (after early 1968) when a majority of Americans came to believe the war was a mistake.

But while Americans tend to support the president on his war policy, that does not necessarily translate into electoral support. The elder Bush received record approval ratings during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but a year and a half later, he was defeated for re-election by a little-known governor from Arkansas.

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