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Americans evaluating presidential candidates based largely on situation in Iraq, say UC Berkeley researchers

– The situation in Iraq has caused so much concern among Americans that their comparative evaluation of the presidential candidates is based largely on that issue with very little attention to matters such as taxes, education and health care, according to a new survey from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some 53 percent of those surveyed between April 1 and May 6 view the situation in Iraq as an "extremely serious problem," up from 34 percent of those queried in March. Further, those who hold a strong negative view of the Iraq situation are favoring presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry over President George W. Bush by a wide margin.

"It appears that the difficult situation in Iraq and the abuse scandals have all combined to suck much of the life out of many of the issues that might otherwise have begun to influence how the public is deciding who they are going to vote for in November," said Douglas Strand of the UC Berkeley Survey Research Center.

"If Iraq continues to dominate in this way, we may have an election that says little about what the public wants to do on other big questions," he said.

The survey, called the Public Agendas and Citizen Engagement Survey (PACES), is led by professors Merrill Shanks and Henry Brady of the UC Berkeley Political Science Department and professor Edward G. Carmines of Indiana University. Strand is the project director.

The first of the polling, conducted by the Survey Research Center, began on Feb. 18 and will continue weekly through the November presidential election. So far, 545 Americans age 18 and over have been interviewed.

PACES is unique in the comprehensiveness of the issues it surveys. Individuals are asked more than 170 questions and, on average, spend about 30 minutes answering. Researchers analyze all of an individual's responses and consider party affiliation, socio-demographic characteristics (including religious involvement) and other concerns and preferences related to the national situation and potential government actions when they assess the importance of any particular issue, concern or preference.

The most recent survey results are based on phone interviews that took place between April 1 and May 6. That period included news coverage of the killing and desecration of corpses of four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, and the first publication of photos of U.S. soldiers appearing to abuse and torture Iraqi prisoners.

The researchers concluded that if the election were held today, it would not be decided based on issues that the presidential candidates have emphasized in their speeches and advertisements, such as education, taxes and health care, nor would it be based on headline-grabbing issues involving gay marriage and abortion.

Current candidate preferences are based heavily on views about Iraq, the United States' use of military force in general, views about the state of the U.S. economy, and to a modest degree, views about environmental protection, the researchers concluded.

The percentage of Americans who see Iraq as an extremely serious problem rose in the last two months. And those with a strongly negative view of the situation have preferred Kerry over Bush 59 percent to 26 percent. The result, according to Strand, is that based on the situation in Iraq alone, Kerry has gained what appears to be at least four or five percentage points in his race against Bush.

Shanks noted that overall, however, Kerry has not appeared to gain much or any ground against Bush, especially when compared to their relative standing in March. They remain either close or in a statistical tie in terms of overall public support, he said.

"Some forces besides Iraq have brought Kerry down, have wiped out the gains against Bush that he appears to have made from the deterioration in Iraq," he said. "We speculate that those forces have certainly included Bush's $70 million of ads and other critical commentary about Kerry that has appeared in the media."

The survey found that little had changed regarding how Americans viewed other issues. In March, 29 percent thought the "number of unemployed" was a serious problem and in early May, 27 percent held that view. In March, 40 percent viewed "the size of the deficit" as a major problem and in early May, 38 percent held that view.

The PACES project will continue to survey Americans every month up through the election and will re-interview its respondents immediately following the election. At that time, the researchers plan to assess why people voted the way they did on Nov. 2.

The survey is sponsored in part by a grant from the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Shanks and Strand will make a full presentation of the results of their study this Saturday (May 15) at the annual convention of the American Association of Public Opinion Research in Phoenix, Ariz., at the Hilton Pointe Tapatio Cliffs Resort.