Let a hundred polls bloom: Iran nuclear deal and public opinion in the US

Vasileios Savvidis, Atomic Reporters analyst

Hey, remember this classic skit on leading questions and commissioned polls from BBC’s old sitcom Yes, Prime Minister?

Adviser: Things don’t happen just because Prime Ministers are very keen on them. Neville Chamberlain was very keen on peace.
Secretary: He thinks it’s a vote winner
Adviser: Ah, that’s more serious. Sit down. What makes him think that?
Secretary: Well, it seems the party’s had an opinion poll done…

Not everyone gets what they want from the annual US State of the Union address (full Washington Post transcript). Before US President Barack Obama had even cleared his throat to begin delivery on Tuesday evening to Congress two polls were in circulation that, of course, claim to express what the American public wants.

Their topic was Iran – about which the President made clear in his address:  “if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.”

A GfK [pdf] poll for Associated Press (reporting a +/- 3.9% margin of error) found that 60 percent polled approved of the interim agreement with Iran while 36 percent disapproved. The same poll registered a 57 percent disapproval rating for Obama’s broader Iran policy along wide skepticism over whether the Iran deal  could stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. The AP-GfK poll was widely picked up by U.S. (i.e

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. The Hill, Huffington Post) and even Iranian media.

Next is a poll by the Mellman Group (reporting a +/- 3.5% margin of error), commissioned by the lobbying group ‘The Israel Project’. It started by posing a series of questions about the level of trust/mistrust toward Iran and other countries, such as North Korea, Russia, China and Israel. Other questions addressed the sincerity of Iran’s intentions and asked people  to choose in a dilemma between taking military action against Iran on the one hand and Iran getting the nuke on the other — as if these are the only options conceivable.

Hmm.  Such questions steer negative predispositions toward Iran right before raising issues relevant to recent developments. Nevertheless, 55 percent supported the agreement and 37 percent were opposed, very close to the AP-GfK poll.

No surprise that conservative media in the US and Israel put their own gloss on the the Mellman poll. Readers were greeted to the headline in The Times of Israel: “Poll: Americans prefer military strike to nuclear Iran”  with a subtitle that “US voters cool to nuclear deal, say Tehran does not deserve sanctions relief, according to study.”

Journalists need to vet polls
. Did leading questions manipulate  the subjects’ answers? Are data  susceptible multiple  interpretation? What political, socio-economic and cultural factors affect the sample? (A 2012 Dartmouth University poll showed 63% of identified Republicans continued believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2003 compared with only 15% of Democrats).  When competently conducted, polls can capture the public mood, setting the tone for policy debate and media reporting. Done recklessly, they can damage the public interest by spinning opaque methods into push-button talking points for vested interests

Three comments worth making here:

First, in both polls there is an underlying and readily accepted assumption that Iran’s intention is to acquire nuclear weapons and in the Mellman poll that Iran currently runs a nuclear weapons program and that it possesses and enhances the ability to make nuclear weapons. Then these assumptions are inserted in the questions in a casual manner without further qualification. The people in the sample are not even asked whether they share these beliefs. This is something that we see in media reporting as well. Assumptions, past suspicions and allegations concerning Iran’s nuclear programme, notwithstanding warranted ones in many occasions, are treated as facts and certainties despite findings and reports to the contrary –or at least expressing strong reservations- by the IAEA, the US intelligence community and other official sources in the last decade.

Second, in the Mellman poll the issue of mistrust toward Iran is a recurring theme. This is something  routinely recycled in the public debate by opponents of the deal to refute and undermine the agreement. To preempt  the red herrings and logical fallacies offered by opponents, Obama shifted focus from trust to verification in his SOTU address: “…we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

Finally, it’s interesting to see that despite the different spin media put to their reporting on these two polls, it’s not incompatible to read the two sets of findings together
. Yes, US public opinion mistrusts Iran and has been lead to believe that Iran is after the bomb and runs an active clandestine nuclear weapons program. Despite all that, the American public at present supports the interim agreement with Iran. And this can be seen even in a poll loaded with leading questions, commissioned by a special interest group that openly opposes the deal.