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Political scientist offers perspective on polls

As the media trot out the latest polling data on President Bush and Iraq, political scientist Adam Berinsky and the students who work for him have been poring over polling data from World War II.

Berinsky, an associate professor at MIT, is researching a new book, "America at War: Public Opinion During Wartime, From World War II to Iraq." He said students recruited through the Institute's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) have been immensely helpful to his research, which involves sifting through masses of data warehoused at places like the National Archives and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

Already, Berinsky's work has gotten notice. Washington Post columnist Al Kamen recently cited Berinsky in rebutting a comment made by White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Snow had turned aside a reporter's question about an Iraq war poll by saying, "If somebody had taken a poll in the Battle of the Bulge, I dare say people would have said, 'Wow, my goodness, what are we doing here?'"

But in fact, there was such a poll. On the Mystery Pollster web site, Berinsky writes, "From December 31, 1944 to January 4, 1945, the American Institute of Public Opinion, headed by George Gallup, asked Americans several questions about the war ��� In the 1945 poll, Gallup asked his respondents, 'If Hitler offered to make peace now and would give up all land he has conquered, should we try to work out a peace or should we go on fighting until the German army is completely defeated?' Contrary to Snow's speculation, 73 percent of the public expressed support for the stated U.S. policy of unconditional surrender; the American people wanted to continue fighting until victory was complete."

In an interview, Berinsky gave students a lot of credit for helping him in his research. "The UROP program is great for my purposes because I get MIT undergrads who are absolutely fantastic," he said. "They've really been invaluable in getting data into shape."

The students get a lot out of the work as well, he said. "It really exposes students to actual research, lets them look under the hood, so to speak. It's a different kind of experience to be part of a research endeavor."

During the school year, Berinsky teaches an introductory course in American politics, and he will offer an undergraduate course in public opinion next spring. "Coming into MIT, the students might think political science is more like high school civics, but here they find it involves statistical analysis, the careful examination of data" -- in short, the sort of stuff they're used to as MIT students.

Berinsky's research indicates that support for fighting in WWII crossed party lines. In a summary of polls taken in 1944 in the United States, he writes, "Of those respondents who had voted to re-elect [Franklin Roosevelt] in the 1944 election, 78 percent wished to continue fighting. Among those who voted for the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, 73 percent wanted to fight until the German army met complete defeat."

Today, by contrast, support for the Iraq war is markedly higher among Republicans than among Democrats, and "the war in Iraq has been strongly associated with President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress. This partisan gap is the real reason the war in Iraq finds only middling support among the mass public," Berinsky said.

To read more of Berinsky's comments, with lively feedback, go to the Mystery Pollster web site.

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