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

  • Matthew A. Baum (a1) and Tim Groeling (a2)

Prevailing theories hold that U.S. public support for a war depends primarily on its degree of success, U.S. casualties, or conflict goals. Yet, research into the framing of foreign policy shows that public perceptions concerning each of these factors are often endogenous and malleable by elites. In this article, we argue that both elite rhetoric and the situation on the ground in the conflict affect public opinion, but the qualities that make such information persuasive vary over time and with circumstances. Early in a conflict, elites (especially the president) have an informational advantage that renders public perceptions of “reality” very elastic. As events unfold and as the public gathers more information, this elasticity recedes, allowing alternative frames to challenge the administration's preferred frame. We predict that over time the marginal impact of elite rhetoric and reality will decrease, although a sustained change in events may eventually 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 from more than 200 surveys of public opinion on the war.

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