WASHINGTON - The polarization between Democrats, Republicans and independents on both politics and policy cannot be overstated. The war in Iraq is perhaps the most vivid and important example of the stark differences in opinions based on party affiliation.
There is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between Republicans and Democrats on the Iraq war. More ominous for the GOP is that independents are coming down on the anti-war side, if slightly less vociferously than Democrats.
This portends potential peril for Republicans in 2008.
Let's look at the difference in attitudes on Iraq using a CBS News poll of 994 adults, conducted last Monday through Thursday, with a 3-point error margin.
Overall, 44 percent said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while 51 percent said the United States should have stayed out. Among Republicans, 76 percent said it was the right thing to do and 20 percent said the U.S. should have stayed out. For Democrats, on the other hand, it was almost the opposite: 21 percent said military action was the right choice, and 74 percent said staying out was the correct option. Just 38 percent of independents said it was the right thing to do, while 56 percent preferred staying out.
On the question of how things are going in Iraq, 2 percent of those polled thought the war was going very well and 29 percent said somewhat well, for a total of 31 percent. Thirty percent said the war was going somewhat badly and 36 percent said it was going very badly, for a total of 66 percent. Among just Republicans, 62 percent thought the war was going very or somewhat well, compared to 36 percent who said somewhat or very badly. Thirteen percent of Democrats said it was going well, and 85 percent said badly. Again, independents came down significantly closer to Democrats than Republicans, with 23 percent saying that it was going well and 74 percent saying it was going badly.
Those surveyed were asked, "regardless of whether you think taking military action in Iraq was the right thing to do, would you say that the U.S. is very likely to succeed in Iraq, somewhat likely to succeed, not very likely to succeed or not at all likely to succeed?"
Twelve percent said the U.S. is very likely to succeed; 33 percent said somewhat likely, 29 percent chose "not very likely" and another 24 percent said not at all likely.
Among Republicans, 72 percent said success is very or somewhat likely, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents -- yet another example of the thinking of independents aligning much more with Democrats than Republicans.
In terms of what the United States should do now, overall, 21 percent said it should increase troop levels in Iraq, 13 percent said keep the same number, 27 percent said it should draw down troop numbers and 33 percent said remove all troops. Sixty-six percent of Republicans were in favor of increasing or maintaining troop levels, compared with 13 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of independents.
Just 31 percent of Republicans said the United States should decrease the number or remove all troops, compared with 81 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.
Regarding a timetable for withdrawal, 57 percent of the total sample said they were in favor -- 34 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents. Sixty-two percent of Republicans surveyed said no to a timetable, but just 19 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents opposed one.
Finally, when posed with three approaches Congress could take on Iraq, just 9 percent overall said all funding for the war should be blocked. Twenty-nine percent said funding should be provided without a time limit, and 58 percent said Congress should allow funding for a limited period of time. Interestingly, only 13 percent of Democrats were for cutting off all funding no matter what, tracking relatively closely with the 4 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of independents. Seventy-four percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents favored continued spending with a timetable, along with 38 percent of Republicans.
Fifty-six percent of Republicans said Congress should allow all funding without a time limit, but just 10 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents went along with that.
Looking at the data, it is understandable why the natural reaction of Republican lawmakers and 2008 GOP presidential contenders is to hang with President Bush on the war: Their base remains pretty supportive.
It is just as easy to understand why Democrats are behaving the way they are.
Notwithstanding what they personally believe, it's hard for lawmakers and presidential candidates to defy their bases. But pending some resolution or fundamental change in the fortunes of this war, the attitudes of independent voters may well come to haunt GOP candidates in the general election.
As with impeachment in 1998, Republicans are listening to their base, but independents are feeling very different, potentially setting the stage for another bad election for the GOP.