Democrats may need convincing on Syria

September 10, 2014, 1:51 PM UTC

Support for military action in Iraq is high, but the President may have to work to convince Democrats to support air strikes in Syria

When Barack Obama addresses the nation on Wednesday night, the people he will most have to convince of the importance of military action against the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS) are the members of his own party: less than half of Democrats in the most recent Economist/YouGov Poll believe the United States should launch air or drone strikes against Islamist militants in Iraq or Syria; more independents and Republicans are already on board and favor action.

The President is expected to stress the importance of air strikes against the Islamist militants, and in fact the U.S. already has launched more than 100 airstrikes against militants in Iraq, and some have urged President Obama to extend those strikes against ISIS in Syria.  But fewer Democrats than Republicans say they think the U.S. should take those actions.   And there is generally less support for action in Syria than in Iraq.

Those percentages have changed relatively little in the last two weeks, though the percentages favoring action have inched up a bit.

One hopeful sign that the President can make a case for action on Wednesday to his partisans is the response to another question in the poll – one that asks for a retrospective judgment about the air strikes that the U.S. has already conducted against ISIS fighters in Iraq.  On that there is no party difference.  Most Republicans, Democrats and independents agree that it was not a mistake to conduct those air strikes.

When it comes to putting American troops on the ground in Iraq again, vast majorities of both Republicans and Democrats are unwilling to do that.  However, a third of Republicans would send American troop trainers to Iraq – something just 23% of Democrats favor. 

There are several things that may motivate the higher GOP support for military action when the question is asked prospectively.  First of all, while most Americans see ISIS as a serious threat to the United States, nearly two-thirds of Republicans regard it as an immediate threat. 

And there is a similar partisan difference when it comes to the threat from ISIS in Syria.  Most of the public regards it as a serious threat, but most Republicans say it is an immediate threat.

Republicans have been somewhat more attentive to the news about Iraq: 31% of Republicans say they have been following the news about the situation in Iraq very closely, something just 19% of Democrats and independents have been doing.  That exposure may also make them more willing to support military action. 

But there is another reason that may motivate Republicans.  While they hesitate supporting sending troops back into Iraq, Republicans overwhelmingly believe U.S. troops should never have left that country in the first place.  Unlike most other Americans, 62% of Republicans believe the 2011 troop withdrawal was a mistake.

Of course, President Obama also must be hoping that his plan for action against ISIS will also help his own image.  His approval rating this week is just 41%, with 54% disapproving.  His approval rating on handling foreign policy in general is even worse. 

When it comes to his handling of the fighting between ISIS and the Iraq government, opinion is more closely divided, but is still more negative than positive.

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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