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A new poll says Americans want a third war in Iraq. Be skeptical.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Rasmussen Reports released a poll today that says a plurality of Americans want to intervene in Iraq's civil war. You should be skeptical.

According to Rasmussen, 46 percent of American "likely voters" favored American "military airstrikes in Iraq to help its government" fight insurgents. Thirty-two percent opposed the idea, while 22 percent weren't sure.

This seems like a pretty clear finding: by a hefty 14-point margin, Americans with an opinion want President Obama to order airstrikes on Iraq.

But there are three reasons, broadly speaking, to be skeptical. First, the wording of the Rasmussen question says something important — that's also false. Here's how the Rasmussen question in airstrikes read:

Do you favor or oppose the United States making military airstrikes in Iraq to help the government fight al Qaeda-led insurgents?

The premise of Rasmussen's question is wrong. The most important anti-government group, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS), is not al-Qaeda led. They splintered from al-Qaeda in February, essentially over the question of whether al-Qaeda could order ISIS around (ISIS had stopped obeying al-Qaeda orders, including ones to tamp down on civilian casualties).

Not only is this a clear mistake, but it's a relevant one: al-Qaeda has a particularly bad perception among the American public. Americans believe, rightly, that al-Qaeda is out to attack the American homeland, and would likely be more supportive of fighting it than a separate group of Islamist militants.

Second, Rasmussen's sample of Americans appears to be off. A Nate Silver assessment found that Rasmussen polls consistently overestimates support for Republican candidates. According to an earlier Silver review, that's because Rasmussen "house effect is endemic to their overall sample construction" — which is poll wonk for "Rasmussen talks to a disproportionate number of Republicans."

Given that Republicans tend to be more hawkish on both terrorism and Iraq-related issues than Democrats are, it would make sense that they'd find an implausibly high amount of support for a bombing campaign in Iraq.

Finally, Americans have fully turned on the Iraq war — and are also skeptical of new interventions. Gallup polls over time show remarkably consistent negative views about the initial decision to invade Iraq for the past four years:


An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from April found that only a small number of Americans wanted the country to be "more active" internationally than it is:


NBC/Wall Street Journal also found that Americans opposed the Obama administration's military bombing campaign in Libya and its proposed bombing campaign in Syria. A December 2013 poll, from Pew, found a historically high percentage of support (52) for the idea that "America should mind its business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." So if Americans are turning away further foreign entanglements, and bombing campaigns in the Middle East specifically, why would they support an intervention in Iraq — of all places?

The answer is that there's a decent chance they don't. Better polls might show that conclusion to be wrong, but Rasmussen's effort really isn't good enough to tell us anything useful about American public opinion.

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