But while national polls continue to report low public approval for the war, many Republican voters appear optimistic about the outcome and stand behind the Bush administration’s policy even in the face of mounting opposition from Democratic lawmakers.
A Pew Research Center study released in February 2007 reported that about three-quarters of Republicans polled say the war in Iraq was the right decision and that the United States will succeed in its goals there. Results from a March CBS/New York Times poll showed 70 percent of Republicans want U.S. troop levels in Iraq to either remain constant or increase.
Just how much sway these voters will have in next year’s primaries remains to be seen, but the frontrunner Republican candidates have yet to deviate from supporting President Bush’s Iraq policy. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have both stated their dedication to the surge and to success in Iraq, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has wagered his campaign on his commitment to the war effort.
“Primary voters, those that form the base of the Republican Party, they are committed to seeing this thing through: not just the surge — the war and our efforts in Iraq,” said Genevieve Wood, director of strategic operations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “I think they are looking for a candidate that can strongly articulate that message.”
Support for keeping troops in Iraq is strongest in the southern and western regions of the United States, according to the Pew poll. The sentiment seems to remain consistent among Republicans regardless of age or gender.
In a recent blind poll of their membership, the Federation of Republican Women, which claims more than 100,000 members, found that 82 percent of its membership backs the administration’s current policies in Iraq.
“Our membership supports the president and the troops and the war and would like to see them stay until it’s finished,” said the group’s President Beverly Davis.
President of the College Republicans at Arizona State University TJ Shope leads a club of about 2,000 members and said that among the 60 or so members that regularly attend meetings there is a strong consensus that the U.S. presence in Iraq is important and necessary.
“The general feeling is that we are there serving a good mission,” Shope said. “Just about every member in our club has someone that they know that is over there or has been over there.”
War policy has not been much of a topic of debate among his club in part, Shope said, because the big name Republican candidates have yet to differentiate their war policies.
“So far it seems like most of the candidates running are pretty similar in wanting to continue what is being done now,” Shope said.
On the staunchly conservative discussion site Free Republic, spokeswoman Kristinn Taylor said there has been a lot of talk of Giuliani being a strong wartime president. His actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have won him vocal fans in the community of conservatives that support the war, Taylor said.
Many on the site also have expressed appreciation for McCain’s steadfast support of the war when looking at primary candidates.
McCain has been especially vehement in his opposition to withdrawing troops, calling antiwar Democrats “reckless” and calling the Iraq war “necessary and just.” His public image is so tied to the war that among the Republican primary candidates he has been the one targeted most by backlash from those opposing the war.
The reaction to some of McCain’s statements highlights the dilemma Republican war supporters may face in the primary: whether the general mood of the country and the growing opposition to the war will make a candidate supporting the current war policies hard or impossible to elect in the general election.
In the CBS/New York Times poll in March, 52 percent of Republicans polled said they thought a candidate who opposes the war has a better chance of winning the general election, compared to 41 percent who thought a war supporter could win the White House.
This perception could encourage strategic voting, which is when a voter considers switching to vote for a more electable candidate instead of his or her personal preference.
John Petrocik, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri – Columbia, and an expert in public opinion and elections, said there are competing theories on the true impact of strategic voting.
“A more common position is that people recognize that some of that goes on, but that for every strategic voter out there, there is at least one sincere voter,” he said, and that these sincere voters mitigate some of the effects on an election.
There are also still many unknown factors when it comes to voters’ true attitudes on the war policy and how the evolving situation in Iraq could affect them. Polling data on opinions about the Iraq war can be misleading, Petrocik said, because the polarizing nature of the debate surrounding the war elicits a knee-jerk partisan reaction.
The Democratic candidates’ attitudes on the war also could affect the strength of the Republican war support base, and any efforts that are perceived as weakening the military could further energize support for the war, said the Heritage Foundation’s Genevieve Wood.
As the primary campaigns continue and more is revealed about the success of the current troop surge, voters will be looking to see candidates emerge with a clear vision of how they will drive this war, said Wood.
“The camps will become clearer,” Wood said. “Candidates on both sides of the aisle will have to clearly articulate their policy, what they would continue to do and what they would do differently.”