The conventional wisdom among the inside the beltway pundits is that Iraq is no longer a leading issue for American voters.
This conventional wisdom is demonstrably untrue. First, some December polls (scroll down) show that it was the most important issue for 25% of likely voters, with other issues trailing substantially.
In part it derives from conceptual confusion. In some polls, Iraq is no longer the single issue for voters that outweighs all others in importance. But it is still one of three major issues that come at the top of voter concern, sometimes tied with health care or education or the economy. That it is tied with health care does not mean it isn’t important to voters. It means it is just as important to them as the health of themselves and their loved ones, which is to say, it is very important.
Let us take likely Democratic Primary voters in New Hampshire. As of mid-December, this is what Rasmussen found:
Eighty percent (80%) of Likely Democratic Primary Voters in New Hampshire say that Health Care is a Very Important voting issue. Seventy-five percent (75%) say the same about the economy, 71% attach the same importance to Government Ethics and Corruptions, and 70% say Iraq is a Very Important voting issue.
Likewise, Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll found in early December that:
‘ The war in Iraq, health care, and the economy continue to outpace other concerns in the minds of likely New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary voters. 26% of likely voters cite the war in Iraq as the most important issue followed by 22% who are concerned about health care and 17% who mention the economy. Among likely voters who see the war in Iraq as the top issue in this election, Hillary Clinton runs neck and neck with Barack Obama. Clinton draws considerable support from likely voters concerned about health care and the economy. ‘
Further, Iraq is more important for some voters than for others.
New Hampshire women voters, for instance, are very concerned about Iraq:
‘On some issues, there is a notable distinction between New Hampshire women and women in the rest of the country. Iraq and health care are hotter issues in New Hampshire and education and the economy are somewhat lower priorities. ‘
Or let’s take the youth vote. A poll released Dec. 5 by Harvard’s Institute of Policy, based on a big weighted sample of over 2500 likely voters aged 18-24, showed that:
‘ . . . Iraq and the War in general is still the top national concern of America’s youth today (37%) . . . [but] nearly one in ten young people (9%) say that healthcare is the “national issue” that concerns them most – more than double the number seen in March 2007 IOP polling (4%). In addition, twice as many young people today favor a universal healthcare system (50%) than those who favor the current system (25%). ‘
Admittedly, youth are more concerned with Iraq than the general public, and Democrats are more concerned with it than Republicans. But 37% of young likely voters saying it is their number one issue is huge.
The conventional wisdom about the decline in relevance of Iraq is even more untrue for Iowans and for the specific sorts of Iowans who voted in the Democratic primary. What is distinctive about the Iowa primary is that Barack Obama got out the youth vote. As many persons under 30 showed up as senior citizens. That trend is new, since mostly voters had until recently been disproportionately older, whiter and wealthier than the general public. But young voters 18-29 are increasingly turning out to vote in larger numbers. And, they favor the Democratic Party 44% to 23% for Republicans. The youth deeply dislike George W. Bush and his policies, and they deeply dislike the evangelical sort of culture issues, since they just can’t get excited about gay marriage and abortion being allegedly dangers to the American way of life.
Since so many young people showed up, and since Iraq is more important as a concern to them (they and their friends are the ones dying or in danger of being drafted if things go bad), it would be foolhardy to discount Iraq as an issue.
And what we see is that the candidate who did not vote for the Iraq War, who vocally opposed it from the beginning, beat the two other front runners who had voted for the war–even if they have now turned against it. The youth vote for Obama can’t be explained by his superior policies on universal health care, at least as economist Paul Krugman reads the plans. Of course, opposition to the Iraq War is for younger voters part of a package. They see Obama as the candidate of change, and they want change. Change with regard to Iraq is however for over a third of them the key specific change that they want.
My own conclusion is that Clinton’s record of having voted for the Iraq War and her vote on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution calling for the designation of an element of the Iranian military a ‘terrorist organization’ hurt her very deeply. It may well be that the Obama campaign’s charge stuck to her, that Benazir Bhutto’s death and instability in Pakistan came about because the US squandered its resources on an Iraq War, which Clinton initially voted for.
This exchange at a town meeting, reported by the NYT, seems to me decisive:
‘ At a town hall meeting in a middle school gym here, Ms. Dennett first hailed Mrs. Clinton’s health care reform effort in 1993-94 . . . My concern is your voting record on war,” Ms. Dennett said. “The friends I talk to, to get them on board, they don’t trust you because of your voting issue on war.” She added that she and her friends did not want Mrs. Clinton to be “a war president.” ‘
Nobody wants any more “war presidents,” but most of all Iowan Democrats and independents.