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«Reality Asserts Itself: Public Opinion on Iraq and the Elasticity of Reality The most widely accepted explanations for public support of U.S. uses of ...»

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Reality Asserts Itself: Public Opinion on Iraq and the Elasticity of Reality

The most widely accepted explanations for public support of U.S. uses of military force

emphasize rational public responses to events as they unfold. Such “event-based” explanations

hold that a president’s ability to sustain public support for a military engagement depends

primarily on its degree of success, the number of or trend in U.S. casualties, or conflict goals.

Yet, recent research into the framing of foreign policy has shown that public perceptions concerning the nature, success or failure, and implications of casualties vis-à-vis U.S. military engagements are often endogenous and malleable by elites. In this study, we argue that the qualities that make a given story persuasive to the public do not remain constant over time. In the initial stages of a conflict, elites have a substantial informational advantage. Consequently, from the public’s perspective, “reality” is very elastic. This frequently allows the administration to dominate the so-called “framing war.” Over time, as events unfold and as the public gathers more information about the conflict, the degree of elasticity recedes, thereby opening a space for alternative frames to challenge the administration’s preferred frame–particularly for viewers outside the president’s party. In the long term, we predict that the marginal impact of both rhetoric and reality will decrease, although a sustained and consistent change in events can temporarily restore their influence. We test our argument through a content analysis of news coverage of the Iraq war from 2003 through 2007, an original survey of public attitudes regarding Iraq, and partially disaggregated data (by party ID) from over 200 surveys of public opinion on the war. We find significant differences consistent with our theory in both the composition and impact of partisan messages on public opinion over time.

Matthew A. Baum Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Phone: (617) 495-1291 email: Matthew_Baum@Harvard.edu Tim Groeling University of California, Los Angeles Department of Communication Studies Phone: (310) 267-4646 email: groeling@ucla.edu Paper prepared for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA, 28-31 August, 2008.

INTRODUCTION

Speaking in St. Louis on July 5, 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama outlined his approach toward the Iraq war: "The tactics of how we ensure our troops are safe as we pull out, how we execute the withdrawal, those are things that are all based on facts and conditions. I am not somebody—unlike George Bush—who is willing to ignore facts on the basis of my preconceived notions" (Loven 2008). In this statement, candidate Obama, in effect, accused President Bush of ignoring reality in his Iraq policies. This invites the question of what role “reality” actually plays in shaping assessments concerning the status of a military conflict.

At the time of this writing (August 2008) the present status and likely future outcome of the prolonged war in Iraq are still in doubt. Nonetheless, it seems clear in retrospect that in 2007 an important shift took place in the situation on the ground in Iraq, perhaps representing the moment this long-presumed-lost war began to be won. Whether or not this ultimately proves to be the case, recognizing this important turn of events proved exceptionally difficult not only for the entrenched politicians on both sides of the dispute over whether (and when) the U.S. should withdraw, but also for journalists attempting to communicate the Iraq story to the public and for citizens seeking to understand the status of the conflict.

Attempting to explain this dilemma, commentator Michael Yon complained, “No thinking person would look at last year’s weather reports to judge whether it will rain today, yet we do something similar with Iraq news. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed, but the inertia of bad news leaves many convinced that the mission has failed beyond recovery… whether it is good news or bad, whether it is true or untrue, once information is widely circulated, it has such formidable inertia that public opinion seems impervious to the corrective balm of simple and clear facts” (Yon 2007).

Consistent with prior research (Brody and Shapiro 1989, Brody 1991, Groeling and Baum 2008), we argue that public opinion regarding Iraq will tend to reflect (or be “indexed” to) media representations of elite debate in Washington concerning the conflict. We refer to this as the Opinion Indexing Hypothesis. When the public observes bipartisan elite support for a policy, they will tend to rally in support of it; if they observe partisan bickering, they will tend to support the positions of their fellow partisan elites, resulting in a smaller rally (if any at all). However, the original application of the Opinion Indexing Hypothesis to public opinion regarding foreign policy (Brody and Shapiro 1989, Brody 1991) purports only to account for the immediate postconflict-initiation presence or absence of a rally-round-the-flag. It also assumes that media coverage accurately reflects the tenor of elite debate, thereby rendering the media in effect a passive conveyor belt (Groeling and Baum 2008).

We challenge this latter assumption and extend the Opinion Indexing Hypothesis beyond the so-called rally-round-the-flag period. We argue that because the public typically observes a conflict’s “reality on the ground” through the systematically distorted lens offered by the media, the effects of elite communication on public opinion are likely to persist, even after accounting for the state of events (that is, net of reality) well beyond an initial rally period. However, as the public gathers more information over time, the potential gap between reality and its representation (or framing) in the media is likely to recede, as is the public’s responsiveness to additional information.





Following Baum and Potter (2007), we refer to this change in relative responsiveness as the “elasticity of reality.” As the elasticity of reality varies, so too, we anticipate, will the relative influence on public opinion of elite communication and objective indicators of reality.

The war in Iraq provides an ideal case for testing our theory. The circumstances described in the Yon quotation suggest that at the time he made these observations, the elasticity of reality with respect to Iraq had effectively collapsed, to the degree that public opinion was almost wholly unresponsive to incremental changes in events or in elite rhetoric. Subsequently, as changes in events persisted and deepened, a gap reopened in the relative and absolute influences of rhetoric and reality, albeit to a limited extent. In this study, we explain both of these patterns. We begin by presenting our theoretical argument and deriving a series of hypotheses concerning the effects of elite rhetoric and “events on the ground” on public opinion regarding Iraq.

We next undertake a series of empirical tests. Testing dynamic patterns in public opinion poses a variety of substantive and methodological challenges. Many things vary over time, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to account for all potential causal factors. Consequently, rather than relying on any single test, we undertake three distinct empirical investigations, employing a variety of data sources and modeling techniques, in order to build as strong a suggestive case for our theory as possible given the limitations of each individual data source. We believe the weight of the combined evidence makes a more persuasive case for the theory than would be possible based on any one, or even several, of our empirical investigations. The final section offers concluding observations.

–  –  –

As articulated, the Opinion Indexing Hypothesis is static—highlighting public responses to information at a single point in time—and hence incomplete. The public does not evaluate events or elite rhetoric about them in a vacuum. Rather, individuals presumably assess new information in part based on a retrospective assessment of the reliability of previous pertinent information they have consumed, as well as on their preexisting beliefs about the event (Thrall 2007). Early in a conflict, typical individuals will have limited information upon which to base such retrospective assessments as well as relatively fungible beliefs about it. Consequently, new information may be relatively influential. Over time, they will acquire more information and their opinions will solidify, at which point the influence of additional new information is likely to recede. Consequently, the qualities that make a given story persuasive to the public are unlikely to remain constant over time.

To further clarify why a given piece of information is likely to exert less influence as an individual collects and retains more information, it is useful to review Zaller and Feldman’s (1992) “top-of-the-head” model of public opinion. According to this model, on any issue, typical individuals possess a range of considerations. When asked their opinion, individuals average across those considerations that are accessible at the time they are asked. They then respond probabilistically, based on the mix of accessible considerations on the pertinent issue. For instance, the greater the proportion of accessible considerations that point toward supporting the conflict in Iraq, the greater the probability that they will express support for the conflict.

Now consider an individual who at time t possesses, say, five considerations regarding Iraq. Suppose three of the five considerations are favorable. If we assume that each consideration is equally accessible, then, when asked her opinion of the conflict, the individual is likely to express support 60 percent of the time. If that individual accepts two additional pieces of negative information about the conflict, her propensity to express support for the war when queried would, ceteris paribus, decline from 60 to 43 percent of the time. If, however, that same individual possessed 50 considerations, then an additional two negative pieces of information would have a much smaller effect. In this case, if we assume the identical ex ante favorable-to-unfavorable proportion of considerations, the propensity to express a supportive opinion would decline from the initial 60 to 58 percent, representing hardly any change at all.1 This is in many respects analogous to the role of metanarratives in presidential politics (Jamieson and Waldman, Kovach and Rosenstiel 2001, Rosenstiel 2004, Mendelsohn and Crespi 1970, PEJ 2008). Once the media, and as a consequence, the public, settle on a particular narrative regarding a candidate–such as “Al Gore is dishonest” or “George W. Bush is unintelligent”–this metanarrative tends to be continually referenced and thereby reinforced. Over time, it becomes increasingly resistant to challenges, even if it is based on faulty assumptions (as many believe is the case with both of the aforementioned examples). In the context of a military conflict, once a given narrative frame becomes entrenched, only large and sustained changes in events “on the ground” are likely to influence it.

Such dominant frames, in turn, can take hold fairly rapidly, as the media repeatedly exposes citizens to them. As retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez commented regarding the effects of war reporting on public opinion in a speech to military reporters and editors, “Once reported, your assessments become conventional wisdom and nearly impossible to change…in your business ‘the first report’ gives Americans who rely on the snippets of CNN…their ‘truths’ and perspectives on an issue” (Sanchez 2007).

Presumably, as the U.S. engagement in Iraq has continued–nearing 5 1/2 years as of this writing–typical citizens have, to varying degrees, increased their store of information about the conflict. As a consequence, attitudes regarding the war have solidified. As noted, early in the This logic is consistent with Bayesian updating. That is, the higher the probability assigned to one’s prior belief, the greater the weight (that is, probability) assigned to that belief in calculating the posterior probability, and hence the larger the influence of that prior belief on an individual’s posterior belief (i.e., probability assessment) (Zalta 2008).

conflict, elites and journalists enjoyed a substantial informational advantage over the public, thereby granting them substantial leeway in the framing of events. The public was thus inclined to accept information relatively uncritically and as reliable.

Because news is in many ways an experience good–whose value cannot be observed prior to consuming it (Hamilton 2003)–consumers can, over time, retrospectively evaluate the reliability of information consumed in the past. In other words, individuals must generally consume news before they can determine its quality. This may lead to a shift in the balance of previously stored considerations–as some negatively or positively tagged information is retagged, based on a retrospective revision in the consumer’s reliability assessment–as well as a coloring of assumptions regarding the reliability of new information. While an inattentive public might tend to have difficulty retroactively retrieving and updating the assessed valuation of information consumed in the murky past, and may be relatively unmotivated to do so, the prominence of the administration’s initial efforts to gain publicity for the desired frame should help citizens recall it later. For example, the Bush Administration’s rhetorical reliance on Saddam Hussein’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program to justify the war made it easier for critics to dredge up such claims later to undermine the administration’s credibility on future claims.2 As this process unfolds, and as elites’ informational advantage recedes over time, the influence of new information inconsistent with the (updated) prevailing media representation of reality presumably recedes. In other words, as individuals gather additional considerations and update their beliefs about the reliability of those considerations (in large part based on the weight of prior news coverage), they are proportionately less influenced by subsequent considerations, See http://www.publicintegrity.org/WarCard/ for a comprehensive listing of the Bush Administration’s allegedly deceptive statements on Iraq.



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