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Sometimes polls tell you what you already know. That’s the case with the polls that the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post and ABC News just released on Syria. Pew found that Americans oppose conducting military strikes against Syria by a margin of 48 percent to 29 percent. By a virtually identical margin (48 percent to 32 percent) they believe that President Obama has not explained clearly why the United States should attack Syria. Meanwhile, the Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Americans opposed military strikes by a margin of 59 percent to 36 percent.
The results come with a caveat. Both surveys began in the middle of last week, before President Obama made his surprising announcement on Saturday that he would ask Congress to approve military action. It’s unclear what effect that might have had, positive or negative, on public opinion.
Pew and Washington Post/ABC News got different results when it comes to how opinion breaks down by party. Pew found that Democrats and Independents looked like each other and the nation as a whole, with Republicans more divided about the merits of military strikes (see below). Conversely, Washington Post/ABC News found that Democrats and Republicans looked alike, while Independents were much more opposed to attacking Syria.
The Washington Post/ABC News poll had one piece of good news for President Obama. Public support for military strikes goes up by ten percentage points when Americans are told that Britain and France will join any military operation. Britain will not be participating in any military operations against Syria, but France still says it will.
These poll results don’t mean that Congress is destined to reject President Obama’s request. Although polls over the past two years consistently show Americans to be skeptical of the merits of intervening in Syria, public opinion can and has moved dramatically on foreign policy issues in the past. Also, polls tell us people’s preferences and not the intensity of those preferences. Six-in-ten Americans opposed intervening in Libya’s civil war back in March 2011. Obama ignored public sentiment, and Operation Odyssey Dawn never became an issue in his march to reelection. It is easier for elected officials to disregard what voters think when there is no perceived penalty for doing so. In any event, lawmakers are less interested in what the nation as a whole thinks and much more about what the people in their state or district who vote for them think.
But the most important reason not to make too much of these poll results is that members of Congress could face a different question than the one Pew and Washington Post/ABC News posed. The polls asked Americans what policy they favored in the abstract. The president and his supporters will be working hard to reframe the question in a more pointed way: are you willing to vote no knowing that your vote will embolden America’s adversaries in the Middle East (think Iran) and endanger its allies (think Israel)? Different questions can elicit different answers.