Libya and Public Opinion
New polls show a dramatic increase in support for American intervention. Or do they?


According to a Rasmussen Reports survey taken at the beginning of this week, 34 percent of likely voters think the United States should get “more directly involved” in the Libyan crisis. Supporters of military intervention might be eager to point out that this number was 12 points higher than the 22 percent who favored greater involvement two weeks earlier. A Gallup survey conducted Monday shows a plurality — 47 to 37 percent — approving of  President Obama’s airstrikes in Libya. And a new CBS poll released on Tuesday finds an even higher 68 percent of Americans supporting the strikes. Considering the current debate over spending and the fact that the country is already engaged in two unpopular wars, the dramatic increase in support of military intervention in Libya is surprising and worth further examination.

Are people’s opinions really changing? Or is it a matter of two external factors: public awareness and elite cues?

Two weeks ago the public’s knowledge about Libya was minimal at best. This is not intended to insult the American public, but rather to point out that their attention had been drawn to the protests and regime change elsewhere in the Middle East. Libya had hit the front pages by the time of the earlier Rasmussen survey, but the talk then was of U.N. sanctions, humanitarian aid, and perhaps technical assistance to the rebels. Most Americans were probably not differentiating much between the happenings in Egypt and Libya. In addition, people have busy lives and worries of their own, leaving little time to think about world politics. Measurements of public opinion about Libya from early March should be taken with a grain of salt.

That’s why the 12-point jump in support for military intervention is most likely, at least in part, a function of increased awareness rather than a sign of a dramatic change of heart. What will be interesting to watch is how views of war in Libya change over the next two weeks. Now that America is militarily engaged in the country, the public is apt to begin following the news about Libya more closely and become more aware of the issues. In short: Public opinion from this point forward is apt to be somewhat more meaningful.

The jump in support, however, is not simply a function of awareness. It’s also a response to elite cues. Elite communication is the lifeblood of mass public opinion. The public generally moves in response to the consistency and intensity of elite messages. And here’s where awareness comes back into the picture: The public tends to follow elites based on a combination of varying levels of political awareness and values.

When asked out of the blue to deliver an answer to a survey question, people who haven’t studied the issue generally respond with the information most accessible at that time. Often the “winning” opinion we hear about in polls is simply the opinion that has been repeated most often or most recently.

This is particularly true of “hard” issues — ones that are not emotional, long-standing, or clearly connected to competing values or goals. Military engagement in Libya is a hard issue. Abortion, on the other hand, is considered an “easy” issue, because it’s emotional, polarized, and a historically controversial issue that most people have thought about at some point. While a lot of people already have a strong opinion about abortion when a survey interviewer calls, very few people as of early March already had a strong opinion about intervention in Libya.

Over the past two weeks, the conversation about the potential civil war in Libya has intensified, and President Obama has now backed military action. His decision probably cued a certain number of Democrats and self-identified “liberals” to support the war, even if they may have earlier been opposed to intervention, because they are accepting — trusting — cues from President Obama.

Similarly, Republicans and self-identified “conservatives” have been exposed to elite voices (e.g., National Review, Commentary) that have also thrown their weight behind intervention. So some conservative respondents, who two weeks earlier may have been opposed to war, are now also reacting to cues from their elites.

Not to be overlooked is the “rally round the flag” effect and public deference to political leadership on foreign affairs. When our country is involved in a conflict, there is a natural tendency for people to support the engagement. And on foreign affairs, which entail issues about which most of the public has very little knowledge and few strong opinions, the public tends to defer to the judgment of our nation’s leaders.

President Obama’s long-delayed but abrupt decision to launch missile attacks without consulting Congress has not been fully digested by the political class, let alone the public. It may appear as if there has been a big jump in support for war, but Americans are just beginning to tune in. As the rest of the story starts to unfold — costs, goals, exit strategy — we’ll get a more accurate and informative read on the state and direction of public opinion.

— Adam B. Schaeffer has a Ph.D. in American politics, with a focus on political behavior, from the University of Virginia. Sabrina L. Schaeffer is managing partner of Evolving Strategies and a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.