This 1 Chart Shows How GOP Support for Striking Syria Collapsed
By Nate Cohn
This chart demonstrates an important thing to keep in mind when interpreting polls. What changed to cause this shift in public opinion? Between April and September, what “striking Syria” means didn’t change; that is to say, the content of the policy remained constant. The justification for the policy, if anything, got stronger. What changed between April and September is that someone with the power to strike Syria said “hey, I want to strike Syria.”
You see a lot of polls that ask people about implausible scenarios, and you often get implausible results. But public opinion about things that any reasonable observer knows aren’t likely to happen at that moment (like striking Syria, in April) isn’t really about that issue, because the likelihood of something happening is one of the major things people take into consideration when forming their opinions. When people were asked about Syria in April, they weren’t really telling you about Syria. Democrats were saying whether they supported military intervention for humanitarian reasons in general, and Republicans were saying whether they wanted to do a thing that John McCain was all for and Obama was against. (Not that Democrats are against point-scoring, they just weren’t getting any elite cues.)
Once striking Syria changes from a hypothetical act to an imminent one, very different ideas become salient. People start thinking about the conditions in Syria in particular, about the human consequences of military action, and about the political costs and benefits of the policy being put into place. Until a policy has become imminent, most people have no earthly reason to give much thought to their opinion. That’s not bad, or good, it’s just how people act. And so it’s necessary to keep that in mind when you see a poll question about an issue whose specifics the public has really had no occasion to consider. What you get in that case isn’t a real opinion on the matter. It’s an opinion on a different matter entirely.
Wise poll commentary.