The New York Times

March 26, 2003

Opinions Begin to Shift as Public Weighs War Costs


Americans say the war in Iraq will last longer and cost more than they had initially expected, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The shift comes as the public absorbs the first reports of allied setbacks on the battlefield.

The percentage of Americans who said they expected a quick and successful effort against Iraq dropped to 43 percent on Monday night from 62 percent on Saturday. And respondents who said the war was going "very well" dropped 12 points, to 32 percent, from Sunday night to Monday night, an erosion that followed an increase in allied casualties and the capture of several Americans.

The poll also found an increase in the respondents who fear an imminent retaliatory terrorist attack on American soil, now that images of the allied assault on Baghdad have been televised around the world, though two-thirds of respondents said the nation was adequately prepared to deal with another terrorist strike.

At the same time, President Bush's campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power is producing sharp fissures at home.

The poll found that black Americans are far more likely than whites to oppose Mr. Bush's policy in Iraq. They are also much more likely to say that the cost of ousting Mr. Hussein was too high, as measured by the loss of life.

Over all, with the war not even a week old, the nation's opinion about the conflict appears to be in flux, driven by an intensity of coverage that has allowed television viewers seemingly to follow every move from their living rooms, and in an environment where many Americans say they remain unsure of Mr. Bush's rationale for the conflict.

Indeed, the Times/CBS News Poll found that the number of Americans who expected the war to be won quickly dropped 9 points from Saturday to Sunday, and 10 more points from Sunday to Monday. Those shifts coincided with television coverage of prisoners of war and battlefield casualties that seems to have caught at least some Americans — accustomed to the relatively bloodless victory in Afghanistan last year — by surprise.

"I think I was living in a pipe dream thinking no one would get killed," Shirley Johnson, 79, a registered Republican from Davenport, Iowa, said in a follow-up interview. "But all of a sudden people were getting killed, and I was horrified."

Pam Wallman, 60, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said, "I think the American public was duped into believing that our troops could just go in there, clean everything up and come home in 10 days."

Nonetheless, support for both the war and for the president, who has kept a low profile after announcing the invasion last week, remains high; Mr. Bush's job approval rating is now 60 percent. Still, Americans said Mr. Bush had failed to give them enough information about how long the war might last, how much it might cost and how many Americans might die in the effort. They also said Mr. Bush had failed to detail how the administration would manage a postwar Iraq.

The nationwide poll of 2,383 adults was taken from Thursday through Monday. It was designed to take into account of daily changes in opinion. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample was plus or minus two percentage points. The margin of error is larger when measuring smaller groups, like blacks, or when chronicling one- or two-night shifts in opinion.

A Times/CBS News poll last week found evidence of divisions between Democrats and Republicans over the war. This latest poll found even sharper differences on the issue between two other groups: blacks and whites. Blacks Americans are far more likely to oppose the war than both white Americans and white Democrats, and are correspondingly unhappy with Mr. Bush's job performance.

While 82 percent of whites said the United States should take military action to oust Mr. Hussein, just 44 percent of blacks said they supported that approach. In addition, 71 percent of whites said they were proud of what the United States was doing in Iraq, compared with 33 percent of blacks.

The findings reflected directly on Mr. Bush's standing among African-Americans. Thirty-four percent of blacks said they approved of the job he is doing, compared with 75 percent of whites.

The finding comes as a number of black political leaders have been at the forefront of the antiwar movement, arguing that young black men and women would be disproportionately represented on the front lines, and that the war would drain federal money that should be spent on domestic programs.

"I have a sick feeling about all the young lives that are going to be destroyed," said Geraldine Hunter, 75, a black Democrat in Cleveland. "I don't know why Bush was in such a hurry to go to war."

Latifa Palmer, 29, of Chino, Calif., who is also black, said: "If you don't mess with them, they won't mess with us. Bush telling Saddam to leave his country would be like Saddam telling Bush to leave his country."

Support for Mr. Bush and the war remains high. By 70 percent to 24 percent, Americans believe that the United States did not make a mistake getting involved in Iraq. But there has been a measurable decline in the national confidence that was on display last week. On Saturday, 53 percent of respondents said the war would be over within weeks; by Monday, only 34 percent of respondents said it would end that soon.