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Issue Framing in Polls

by David W. Moore

A couple of weeks ago, two widely cited polls, conducted over almost the same time period, presented somewhat different pictures of public opinion on the war in Iraq. The Washington Post headlined the results of their poll with ABC News as "Survey Finds Most Support Staying in Iraq." My own story on the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had the headline, "Public Skeptical on Ultimate Success of U.S. Efforts in Iraq."

Despite the different tone of the headlines, the polls themselves found similar results on the questions that were identical in both polls, or essentially the same in meaning. The Post's sub-headline also announced a less-than-positive citizenry, "Public Skeptical About Gains Against Insurgents."

Still, the stories appeared to disagree on two rather salient points. The ABC/WP poll found a solid majority of Americans in favor of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely, while the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll suggested Americans are ambivalent to anxious about pulling troops out of Iraq.

The results from the two polls also differ, though not as much, on the war's effect on U.S. security, with the ABC/WP poll suggesting a more positive view than the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

The ABC/WP poll was conducted June 23-26, while the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll was conducted June 24-26.

Bug Out or Withdraw Carefully?

The two questions about troop withdrawal are worded quite differently, though both ask whether American troops should remain in Iraq indefinitely or be pulled out even if the situation does not improve. But the ABC/WP question poses a trade-off between restoring order and taking continued casualties on the one hand, versus avoiding casualties and not restoring order on the other. Gallup's trade-off is somewhat different: an improved situation and many years of occupation versus leaving soon (implicitly) and regardless of improvement.

Apparently, when withdrawal is framed (essentially) as bugging out to avoid casualties, a solid majority of Americans are not willing to follow that route. But when withdrawal is framed as an orderly plan, using a timetable, with no suggestion that the reason is to avoid casualties, a slight majority of Americans find that acceptable.

ABC/WP: Do you think (the United States should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties); OR, do you think (the United States should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further U.S. military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there)?

CNN/USA Today/Gallup: If you had to choose, which do you think is better for the U.S. -- [ROTATED: to keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the situation there gets better, even if that takes many years, (or) to set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and to stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq at the time]?



CNN/USA Today/Gallup

Keep forces until order is restored/Keep troops until situation gets better



Withdraw forces to avoid further casualties/Set a timetable for withdrawal



No opinion



These results emphasize the importance of the way the issue is framed. Many war supporters focus on not taking a "cut-and-run" approach, which suggests a certain cowardice that is objectionable to many people. Opponents, on the other hand, focus on curtailing an indefinite commitment by setting a timetable, implying that the United States has done its job and now it's time to leave, rather than the United States is quitting just because the task is difficult.

Another example of framing is found in the questions about the war's effect on U.S. security. The ABC/WP poll framed the issue as whether the war had contributed to "the long-term security" of the country, while Gallup framed it in a more immediate period -- whether the war had (already) made the United States "safer or less safe from terrorism." The latter frame found 43% of Americans responding positively, while the ABC/WP emphasis on the "long term" found 52% giving a positive response.

ABC/WP: Do you think the war with Iraq has or has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States?

CNN/USA Today/Gallup: Do you think the war with Iraq has made the U.S. safer -- or less safe -- from terrorism?



CNN/USA Today/Gallup

Has contributed to security/Safer



Has not contributed to security/Less safe






No opinion



While the results seem different, in principle it is possible to say that the war has not yet made the country safer, but it will help U.S. security in the long term. Still, these results highlight how important a slight shift in perspective can be on how the public views the issue.  

On several other issues that the two polls covered, results were similar despite different question wording. For example, 53% of respondents in the ABC/WP poll said the war with Iraq was "not worth fighting," while an identical 53% of respondents in the Gallup survey said the war was a "mistake."

ABC/WP: All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?

CNN/USA Today/Gallup: In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?


CNN/USA Today/Gallup

Worth fighting/Not a mistake



Not worth fighting/A mistake



No opinion



Even more surprising is the congruence in results based on two quite different ways of asking how the war in Iraq is going. ABC/WP asked whether the United States had gotten bogged down or was making progress, while Gallup asked who was winning the war. The ABC/WP poll found 37% who said the United States was making progress, not much different from the 34% in the Gallup survey citing the United States and its allies as winning the war. Either result suggests that most people have a dim view of how things are going in Iraq.

ABC/WP: Do you think the United States (has gotten bogged down in Iraq), or do you think the United States (is making good progress in Iraq)?

CNN/USA Today/Gallup: Who do you think is currently winning the war in Iraq -- the U.S. and its allies, the insurgents in Iraq, or neither side?


CNN/USA Today/Gallup

Making progress/U.S. and allies winning



Bogged down/Insurgents or neither side winning



No opinion



The lesson from this tale of two polls is that differences in question wording (about the same issue) sometimes do -- and sometimes do not -- produce major differences in what the polls measure. When polls show major differences in results about the same question, we gain insight into how the framing of issues affects public opinion. On the other hand, when polls find similar results despite different question wordings, it indicates a solid public consensus about the issue.

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