In August 2003, at the behest of The American Enterprise, John Zogby deployed a team of surveyors across Iraq to conduct the “first scientific poll” of its citizens. On September 10 the magazine’s editor in chief, Karl Zinsmeister, summarized the findings in the Wall Street Journal, under the unfortunate headline What Iraqis Really Think. He described the situation as “manageable,” noting that seven out of ten Iraqis expected their country and their lives to improve within five years. A plurality of respondents also chose the United States as a model for Iraq’s fledgling democracy, rather than Syria, Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. “The mass of citizens living along the Tigris-Euphrates Valley are likely to make reasonably sensible use of their new freedom,” Zinsmeister exulted. “We’re making headway in a benighted part of the world. Hang in there, America.”
The same day, Zogby discussed the poll in the Financial Times, drawing the opposite conclusion: with Saddam Hussein overthrown, Iraqis were eager to “control their own destiny” and to “move forward but not as a colony.” A majority of respondents were pessimistic about democracy in Iraq, wanted the United States and Britain to let Iraqis set up their own government, and believed the United States would hurt rather than help the country in the next five years.
It took four days for Dick Cheney to go on television and tout Zogby’s data as proof that the Administration’s strategy was sound. “There are problems” in Iraq, Cheney beneficently admitted on Meet the Press, but the proof was in the polls: “To suggest somehow that…the Iraqi people are opposed to what we’ve done in Iraq or are actively and aggressively trying to undermine it, I just think that’s not true.”
Facts, it has been said, can be used to prove anything that’s even remotely true; what a poll delivers is the impression of fact, momentary preferences and affinities packaged for a buyer who hopes the information will help sell a product or an idea. If the numbers seem unlikely to lead the buyer to greater profits or more votes, they can be distorted or dismissed until “better” data come into being. The market for public-opinion research is a dynamic one–which is to say that people are always changing their minds.