Why Iraq Improvements Aren't Helping John McCain

In theory, John McCain’s poll numbers should be improving right along with the news out of Iraq.

Just a year ago, daily news coverage was dominated by pictures and descriptions of carnage and chaos, and McCain seemed doomed: Even if he won the Republican nomination (which itself seemed a remote possibility last summer), his intimate association with the war and the widely criticized troop “surge” would surely render him electoral poison in the 2008 general election.

Today, violence in Iraq has dropped measurably (though it still persists), foreign fighters who previously flocked to the country have turned their sights elsewhere, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, once dismissed as a timid prime minister whose political impotence was symptomatic of broad governmental dysfunction, has consolidated his power, asserted his authority over some extremist groups, and in the last week has actually begun calling for an informal timetable for a U.S. troop departure.

McCain has been claiming vindication for months, reminding voters that he fought passionately for the escalation of the war back in the early days of 2007, when public opinion and a new Democratic Congress wanted to walk away. Meanwhile, Barack Obama – while not shifting his position, despite the claims of McCain’s campaign – has seemed to shift his emphasis on the issue, standing by his commitment to end the war but stressing that he would be flexible in implementing a troop withdrawal plan.

All of this, it would seem, should be doing wonders for McCain’s poll numbers, buttressing his claim that he is the candidate of wisdom and experience on foreign policy – and that Obama is simply untested. But it’s not. There’s been no noticeable improvement in his polling in the last two months and his general election prospects are, in a word, discouraging. Why is McCain not benefiting from the developments in Iraq?

Democrats would say it’s because he doesn’t deserve to benefit. Violence may be down in Iraq, they’d argue, but it’s still unacceptably high – at the same level as it was a few years ago, when few thought the war was going well at all. And the surge itself, for all the hype, is only part of the reason the situation has calmed somewhat. For example, the awful sectarian violence of 2005 and 2006 radically reduced the number of mixed neighborhoods, which in turn reduced the likelihood of further violence.

But the real explanation is probably far simpler: Mass opinion simply isn’t influenced by the details of policy debates. Most people do not follow the news out of Iraq on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. They do not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, and don’t care to know, either. (And it’s not just the public; the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was also unaware of the difference.) Their attitudes instead are shaped largely by their own instincts and biases and by their gut reactions to the overall theme of the accumulated news coverage that they absorb.

In practice, it works this way: as Rick Shenkman pointed out in his new book, Just How Stupid Are We? only one in seven Americans can find Iraq on a map, and 50 percent believed – years after the notion had been discredited – that Saddam Hussein had been involved in 9/11. This helps explain why, on the whole, the public seemed to ask so few questions in the run-up to the invasion in 2003. Mass opinion only turned against the war well into the conflict, when even the most disengaged news consumer couldn’t help but take note of the daily drumbeat of horrific news and imaged emanating from Iraq: They were weren’t sure exactly how and why it had gone wrong, but the masses concluded – sometime in 2005 or 2006 – that the war had been a terrible mistake.

And there mass opinion has remained, even as the news has seemingly improved. Polls continue to show that around two-thirds of voters don’t believe the war should have been waged and favor a withdrawal. That finding may change somewhat in the months ahead, but probably not substantially. The bad news of 2005 and 2006 was broadcast so loudly that no voter could ignore it. But not so with the less-bad news of 2008. A recent study found that Iraq comprised 22 percent of all network news airtime in early 2007, but just 4 percent in early ’08. As a result, the public has simply moved on to other matters: A new Pew Research Center poll finds that 44 percent of voters now identify the economy as the issue they most care about, while only 19 percent name Iraq – a marked decline from a year ago.

The point here isn’t that McCain does or doesn’t deserve credit for his support for the surge. It’s a complicated question, and mass opinion doesn’t do complexity; it responds to saturation news coverage.

Told that he would receive the vote of every thinking man, Adlai Stevenson famously replied: “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.” Even if every thinking man and woman today on the issue of Iraq were to mull over the latest developments and decide to support McCain, he’d still be well short of a majority, too.

Why Iraq Improvements Aren't Helping John McCain