To hear many in the mainstream media tell it, the Iraq War is of diminishing importance to American voters. But the evidence for such a shift in the electorate is thin at best–suggesting that journalists and pundits are really the ones who would rather not talk about Iraq as we head into an election year.
The New York Times offered a glimpse of this argument in a November 25 piece headlined “As Democrats See Security Gains in Iraq, Tone Shifts.” The article suggested that “leading Democratic presidential candidates” were having trouble acknowledging “success” in Iraq while still opposing the war: “But the changing situation suggests for the first time that the politics of the war could shift in the general election next year, particularly if the gains continue.”
This was carried further a few days later by the Washington Post (11/28/07), where it was reported that the “debate at home over the Iraq war has shifted significantly,” a phenomenon that “has strategists in both parties reevaluating their assumptions about how the final year of the Bush presidency and the election to succeed him will play out.”
The Post suggested that the “evolving public attitudes reflect, or perhaps explain, a turn in Washington as well.” The suggestion that Washington might be reacting to subtle changes in public opinion is a curious one; if public sentiment were truly guiding policy, then U.S. troops would have long been on their way out.
The idea that the public was ceasing to care so much about Iraq was heard again in the Post on December 3, when pundit Peter Beinart advanced the argument in a column under the headline “Non-Story Remakes the Race.” Beinart’s lead example was that a recent Democratic candidates’ debate featured little talk about the Iraq War. As Beinart put it, “In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be. And that explains a lot about which candidates are on the rise and which ones are starting to fall.”
Beinart also noted that the rate of deaths in Iraq has seemed to decline, so too has the media’s interest in covering the war, which is
It’s worth noting that even with such a decline, Iraq still remains the top concern for voters; in the NBC poll cited by Beinart, for example, Iraq was still 10 points ahead of the next issue (healthcare). Beinart’s column was nonetheless the main inspiration for New York Times columnist David Brooks’ December 11 “The Postwar Election.”
USA Today turned in a similar story on December 5, leading with this claim: “Growing anxiety over the economy, healthcare and immigration rival Iraq as the central issues in the presidential campaign, shifting an election landscape once dominated by the war.”
But the very next paragraph explained that the issues that might “rival” the Iraq War were still well behind, since the war “still tops the list of issues cited as most important. It’s raised twice as often as the next-ranking issue, the economy.” USA Today reporter Susan Page explained on PBS‘s NewsHour (12/10/07) that the diminishing importance of the Iraq War was obvious in the campaign:
NBC‘s Tim Russert was sounding the same tune on the December 9 broadcast of NBC Nightly News: “With the surge in Iraq and the level of American deaths declining, it is off the front pages. It looks like it could be a bread-and-butter election, where people are very concerned about their homes, the financing, the economy, those kinds of gut issues.” Russert’s conclusion was based on polls in three early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), but those surveys painted a mixed picture. New Hampshire Democrats, for example, still ranked Iraq as their most important priority.
It should go without saying that polls in a handful of states should not be mistaken for a notable shift in national priorities. Most national polls suggest that Iraq is hardly fading; according to a recent CBS/NY Times poll (12/5-9/07), when asked to name the most important issue facing the country, the public named the Iraq War by a large margin–twice as many as the next issue (healthcare). NBC Nightly News reporter Savannah Guthrie (12/15/07) nonetheless declared: “For many, many months, the smart thinking was this was going to be all about the war in Iraq, but that’s kind of been pushed aside to some degree. Now issues about immigration and the economy [are] taking center stage.”
Given the slight evidence, it’s unclear why journalists would advance this argument–unless the declining interest in the Iraq War is actually more a media phenomenon than a public one. Beinart’s Washington Post column and the paper’s November 28 report noted a drop in discussion of the Iraq War in presidential debates. But candidates might talk less about Iraq if the questions posed by journalists are not about the Iraq War. The Post news article suggested this might be the more relevant factor when the paper noted that the “Washington debate has moved on”– by which they meant:
The discussion permitted by the media inevitably affects voters’ feelings about major issues: If Iraq is absent from the front pages of newspapers or rarely discussed on network newscasts, the war will become a lesser concern for U.S. citizens. The media, however, seem to want us to believe that their choices have no effect on public opinion, that viewers and readers arrive at conclusions about the state of the world independent of what is on their television screens or newspaper front pages.
On December 12, the deadliest car bombing in months killed dozens of Iraqis. The news elicited brief mentions on the network newscasts, and was buried deep inside the Washington Post and New York Times. Was it the public who decided to treat this as a non-story?