The American public's reaction to the Iraq war appears to hold a paradox: As opinion goes increasingly sour, the numbers of people attending protests seem to be declining.
Last weekend marked the three-year anniversary of the war's start, and according to press reports, tens of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to protest. In New York's Times Square, the number was estimated at 1,000. In Chicago, 7,000 people turned out.
It's difficult to get a nationwide total because the protest groups made a conscious decision this year to decentralize the anniversary events - to take the protests into local communities and congressional districts, as the fall elections approach. But, war opponents acknowledge, overall turnout was probably smaller than during the last two anniversaries, at least in the United States. Still, say political scientists and antiwar activists, there is a logic to how polls and protest turnout intersect, and each war has its own trajectory in terms of public opinion.
"It's not as paradoxical as it seems," says war opponent Norman Solomon, author of the book "War Made Easy." "Antiwar sentiment has mainstreamed a lot more quickly [with Iraq] than during the Vietnam War."
With the Iraq war, the numbers of visible protesters were large even before the war. On Feb. 15, 2003, between 375,000 and 500,000 people jammed 40 blocks of Manhattan to protest impending war. With Vietnam, the US had been engaged there for years before the big protests began.
Once the Iraq war started, it took less time for a majority of Americans to turn negative than it did in the two previous major wars the US has fought since World War II: Korea and Vietnam.
Poll questions on Iraq illuminate different angles of the war - and provide a varying view of whether the war has been worth it. In a mid-March poll for Fox News, 59 percent of US voters agreed that the Iraqi people are "better off today because of the military action taken in Iraq by the US-led coalition." And 74 percent agreed that the US and the world are "safer today without Saddam Hussein in power."
But when the questions relate directly to President Bush, the numbers go south. In a mid-March Newsweek poll, Bush's approval rating for his handling of the situation in Iraq has sunk to an all-time low of 29 percent. And looking ahead to the fall congressional elections, 50 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq in the next 12 months, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Thirty-five percent say they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate.
Bush's overall job approval ratings remain at record lows for his presidency; some polls put him as low as 33 percent.
"Bush would be much happier if his poll approvals were higher and the numbers in the streets were higher," as his party heads into the midterms, says Mr. Solomon.
Street protests don't necessarily sway public opinion, says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University. What changes minds is what's happening in Iraq, not what protesters are saying. "There weren't many protests on Korea, and public opinion declined on that as well," he says. "I never thought the Vietnam protests were effective in changing public opinion or policy. They may have been counterproductive ... because, unlike protests now, they were associated with tearing down American values."
The president's low job approval and the American public's growing impatience with the war mean that big public protests may be less necessary, at least as a tool to demonstrate the intensity of public feeling to the administration, says Alexander Bloom, a historian at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. "Going into the streets can be a sign that people feel there's no other way to be heard," he says. But in this war, he adds, the polls speak loudly.
Antiwar activists themselves report that their audience at protests has become more diverse. Another audience, they say, is not so much the Bush administration but both parties in Congress.
"We need to focus on our elected representatives because they continue to fund this war, and the only way to stop the war at this point is to stop the funding," says Anne Roesler, a mother of an Iraq war veteran, from San Francisco. Some protesters say turnout isn't higher because of a sense of hopelessness. "People don't know what to do at this point," says Emily Jordan, a member of the antiwar organization World Can't Wait, from Brooklyn.
• Lauren Dake contributed to this report from New York.