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Interview: Andrew Kohut Discusses Recent Polling Data On Iraq And Its Importance In The Upcoming Election

All Things Considered: October 31, 2002

Iraq, Elections and Public Opinion

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

Public support for military action against Iraq is slipping. Just over half, 55 percent of Americans, favor using force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. That's down 7 points from 62 percent earlier this month. The numbers are from a new poll from the Pew Research Center For The People * The Press. Andrew Kohut is director of the Pew Center, and he's with me now.

Welcome.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Pew Research Center For The People & The Press): Happy to be here.

YDSTIE: Andy, what's behind this waning support for going to war with Iraq?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, opposition has been slowly growing. In August, we had one in five Americans opposed; in September, one in four; and now, one in three. And, ironically, the one in three comes at a time after the congressional vote. So it may be partly that. And maybe it takes awhile for people to think through some of their concerns, and there are many concerns as expressed in this poll.

YDSTIE: Right. Even the people who continue to support military action have a growing unease about what might happen.

Mr. KOHUT: Indeed. We found close to 60 percent saying they were worried that Saddam might use chemical or biological weapons against US troops; 53 percent saying that the chances of domestic terrorism would increase, and that compares to 31 percent 11 years ago on the eve of the Gulf War. So the public has a wide range of concerns.

And, of course, there's always the worry about casualties, and in this particular engagement, the public continues to qualify whatever support it gives with, `We have to go with allies. We don't want to go it alone.' The percentage of people who say we should do it even if we don't have allied support is only 27 percent in this survey. So that's really the hurdle that President Bush still has to jump.

YDSTIE: What about the Iraq issue as an election issue? Any sense of whether it's playing a big role?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, Iraq, just like every issue, which there are many in this election and growing anxieties about Iraq and growing anxieties about the economy, don't seem to be translating into any change in partisan attitudes. We still, despite the fact that there's less support for the war in Iraq in this poll, there's still the same margin of preferring the Republicans for dealing with this issue over the Democrats. And even though The Conference Board showed consumer confidence at a nine-year low, Democrats haven't gained on the Republicans in terms of the party best able to handle the economy. There seems to be a disconnect between the way people feel about the issues and their concerns about the country and their own lives and they way they think about the political parties and, by implication, the candidates next Tuesday.

YDSTIE: You're saying there are these big issues that people are paying attention to, but no translation into this election campaign. Why?

Mr. KOHUT: It may be lack of anger and lack of finger-pointing, which are so important for political change. There was a new ABC poll out this week that may have given us an important clue. Only 7 percent of its respondents were expressing anger at the federal government; that compares to 14 percent four years ago and 21 percent in 1994.

YDSTIE: Why is that, do you think?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, it could be that still just 13 months after the terrorist attacks, the American public is not quite yet in the mood to be so angry and emotional about national issues and with national parties and figures.

YDSTIE: Thank you very much, Andy.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

YDSTIE: Andy Kohut is the director of the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press.

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