THE MANY POLLS on the Persian Gulf crisis taken since August 2 together give us a remarkably complete picture of American public opinion. The public's response is generally clear and its principal elements beyond dispute.
Polling shows again and again that any policy questions about which the public has thought much, popular opinion displays coherence, structure and stability. From the beginning, the public's response to the gulf crisis has shown these properties. Americans have strongly supported a policy aimed at overturning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
This doesn't mean, of course, that they were in any sense eager for war; they hoped U.S. objectives could be achieved short of it. But as time passed and a satisfactory peaceful resolution appeared less and less likely, public readiness to see military action taken gradually firmed. By January 15, the base of support for such action was both broad and deep.
Questions asking about the basic design and execution of U.S. policy have shown some movement over the past five and a half months. For example, President Bush's handling of the crisis got somewhat higher backing at the outset, somewhat lower marks when the president's political stock dipped in October and November in the midst of tax and budget woes, rose in December and jumped again upon the outbreak of war.
But all along, as the graph shows, the striking finding was the breadth of support for Mr. Bush's approach. Even when he was his weakest politically last fall, those opposing his gulf policy numbered just over one-third of the populace.
Similarly, by margins of 2-to-1 and greater, Americans have at every stage in the crisis rejected the argument that sending U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia -- that is, getting heavily involved militarily -- was a mistake.
A daily tracking poll done in Connecticut by the University of Connecticut's Institute for Social Inquiry reminds us that it is the general persistence of public backing for American policy, not the spike in support just after the war began, which is the main story. Those saying the U.S. did the right thing sending troops into the region were 67 percent of the total in the four days prior to the war; the proportion rose, but modestly, to 76 percent in the first four days following the outbreak of hostilities.
Some poll questions have shown highly fluctuating responses, but for the most part they come in areas where the setting has changed and/or where the public doesn't have much hard information -- not on basic policy. For example, questions asking (prior to January 16) whether war was likely found quite different assessments from one stage to the next. And, "How long do you think the war will last?" was answered very differently immediately after the war began, when most of the military news was positive, than it was when the war was already a week old and the news was mixed.
No matter of public opinion has received more attention than that of how long public support can be expected to hold up. Part of the answer is already in. In the more than five months between the Iraqi invasion and commencement of the war, as U.S. troop strength in the gulf region steadily grew, reservists were called up, and so on -- and support didn't weaken.
What may happen in the weeks or months ahead can't be known for sure. But polling during the Vietnam war made clear that what was remarkable was how long backing for military action held. As late as April 1968, following the Tet offensive and three years of all-out fighting by U.S. troops, Gallup found as many people wanted to "step up our military effort in Vietnam" as wanted to reduce it.
Beyond the overall level of support for the government's gulf policy, there has been attention to group differences -- between blacks and whites and between women and men. In both cases, the coverage doesn't convey the full story of what the polls have found.
Black Americans have been consistently less supportive than whites of U.S. policies in the gulf, including the decision to go to war. For example, the CBS News/New York Times survey of January 17-20 found just 40 percent of blacks, compared with 62 percent of whites, describing the war as likely to be worth the loss of life and other costs -- a gap of 22 percentage points. The gap was 28 points on Mr. Bush's handling of the crisis -- 86 percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks approving.