The World According to a Bush Voter

October 21, 2004 |

by Jim Lobe,

Do the supporters of President Bush really know their man or the policies of his administration?

Three out of 4 self-described supporters of President George W. Bush still believe that pre-war Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or active programs to produce them. According to a new survey published Thursday, the same number also believes that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provided “substantial support” to al Qaeda.

But here is the truly astonishing part: as many or more Bush supporters hold those beliefs today than they did several months ago. In other words, more people believe the claims today –- after the publication of a series of well-publicized official government reports that debunked both notions.

These are among the most striking findings of a survey conducted in mid-October by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.

The survey polled the views of nearly 900 randomly chosen respondents equally divided between Bush supporters and those intending to vote for Democratic Sen. John Kerry. It found a yawning gap in the perceptions of the facts between the two groups, particularly with regards to President Bush’s claims about pre-war Iraq.

According to the accompanying analysis offered by PIPA:

It is normal during elections for supporters of presidential candidates to have fundamental disagreements about values or strategies. The current election is unique in that Bush supporters and Kerry supporters have profoundly different perceptions of reality. In the face of a stream of high-level assessments about pre-war Iraq, Bush supporters cling to the refuted beliefs that Iraq had WMD or supported al Qaeda.

The survey probed each respondent’s views at three separate levels: One, their personal belief about the two issues; two, their perception of what “most experts” had concluded about the same; and three, their knowledge of the Bush administration’s claims on either WMDs or al Qaeda.

The survey found that 72 percent of Bush supporters believe either that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for producing them (25 percent). This despite the widespread media coverage in early October of the CIA’s “Duelfer Report” – the final word on the subject by the one billion dollar, 15-month investigation by the Iraq Survey Group – which concluded that Hussein had dismantled all of his WMD programmes shortly after the 1991 Gulf War and never tried to reconstitute them.

Nonetheless, 56 percent of Bush supporters are under the impression that the expert consensus is exactly the opposite – that Iraq had actual WMD. Another 57 percent think that the Duelfer Report itself concluded that Iraq either had WMD (19 percent) or a major WMD program (38 percent).

Only 26 percent of Kerry supporters, by contrast, believe that pre-war Iraq had either actual WMD or a WMD program, and only 18 percent said “most experts” agreed on the same.

Results on Hussein’s alleged support for al Qaeda are similar. The contention – which has been most persistently asserted by Vice President Dick Cheney – was thoroughly debunked by the final report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission earlier this summer.

Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters said they believed that Iraq was providing “substantial” support to al Qaeda, with 20 percent asserting that Iraq was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Sixty-three percent of Bush supporters even believe that clear evidence of such support has actually been found, and 60 percent believe that “most experts” have reached the same conclusion.

By contrast, only 30 percent of Kerry supporters said they believe that such a link existed or that most experts have concluded that it did.

Ironically, the only issue on which the survey found broad agreement between the two sets of voters was the role of the Bush administration in actively promoting the claims about Iraq’s WMD and connections to al Qaeda.

“One of the reasons that Bush supporters have these (erroneous) beliefs is that they perceive the Bush administration confirming them,” notes Steven Kull, PIPA’s director. “Interestingly, this is one point on which Bush and Kerry supporters agree.”

In regard to WMD, those majorities have actually grown since last summer, according to PIPA.

On WMD, 82 percent of Bush supporters and 84 percent of Kerry supporters believe that the administration claims that Iraq either had WMD or major WMD programs. On ties with al Qaeda, 75 percent of Bush supporters and 74 percent of Kerry supporters believe that the administration claims that Iraq provided substantial support to the terrorist group.

Remarkably, when asked whether the U.S. should have gone to war without evidence of a WMD program or support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said no. Moreover, 61 percent said they assumed that Bush would also not have gone to war under those circumstances.

“To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about pre-war Iraq,” Kull says.

He added that this “cognitive dissonance” could also help explain other remarkable findings in the survey. The poll also found a major gap between Bush’s stated positions on a number of international issues and what his supporters believe Bush’s position to be. A strong majority of Bush supporters believe, for example that the president supports a range of international treaties and institutions that the White House has vocally and publicly opposed.

In particular, majorities of Bush supporters incorrectly assume that he supports multilateral approaches to various international issues, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (69 percent), the land mine treaty (72 percent), and the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming (51 percent).

In August, two-thirds of Bush supporters also believed that Bush supported the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although that figure dropped to a 53 percent majority in the PIPA poll, it’s not much of a drop considering that Bush explicitly denounced the ICC in the first, most widely watched presidential debate in late September.

In all of these cases, majorities of Bush supporters said they favored the positions that they imputed, incorrectly, to Bush. Large majorities of Kerry supporters, on the other hand, showed they knew both their candidate’s and Bush’s positions on the same issues.

Bush supporters also have deeply erroneous views regarding the extent of international support for the president and his policies. Despite a steady flow over the past year of official statements by foreign governments and public-opinion polls showing strong opposition to the Iraq war, less than one-third of Bush supporters believe that most people in foreign countries oppose the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Two-thirds believe that foreign views are either evenly divided on the war (42 percent) or that the majority of foreigners actually favors the war (26 percent).

Three of every four Kerry supporters, on the other hand, said it was their understanding that the most of the rest of the world oppose the war.

Similarly, polls conducted during the summer in 35 major countries around the world found that majorities or pluralities in 30 of them favored Kerry for president over Bush by an average of margin of greater than two to one. Yet 57 percent of Bush supporters believe that a majority of people outside the U.S. favor Bush’s re-election, while 33 percent think that foreign opinion is evenly divided.

On the other hand, two-thirds of Kerry supporters think that their candidate is favored overseas; only one percent think that most people abroad preferred Bush.

Kull, who has been analyzing U.S. public opinion on foreign-policy issues for two decades, says that this reality gap reveals, if anything, the hold that the president has over his loyalists:

The roots of the Bush supporters’ resistance to information very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake. This appears to have created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters – and an idealized image of the President that makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion would be critical of his policies or that the president could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with his supporters.

In other words, Bush supporters choose to keep faith in their leader than face the truth either about their president or the world as it is.

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