Before the international nuclear agreement with Iran was announced, U.S. polls consistently found the same results: Americans approved of the process. Despite skepticism about Iran, the U.S. mainstream repeatedly said it supported the Obama administration’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution.
But now that an agreement has been reached and announced, polling data isn’t quite as consistent. The Washington Post/ABC poll found that most Americans support the deal, while CNN found that most Americans don’t support it. Public Policy Polling and Pew Research also released results pointing to contradictory public attitudes.
So, what do people really think? And why do the polls suddenly point in unhelpful directions?
Part of the issue here is that most Americans don’t follow these issues closely, so gauging public opinion can get a little tricky. How pollsters word the question – how much information Americans are given by the poll itself – makes a big difference. Note, for example, how PPP presented the issue:
“The US and other countries have reached an agreement to place limits on Iran’s nuclear program in order to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In exchange for limiting its nuclear program, Iran would receive gradual relief from US and international economic sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency would monitor Iran’s facilities and if Iran was caught breaking the agreement, the current economic sanctions would be imposed again. Would you say you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose this agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program?”
That’s a pretty fair summary for someone who doesn’t know much about the debate, and PPP found that a 54% majority either “strongly” or “somewhat” supports the agreement.
Other pollsters, however, provide respondents with little or no information. A Vox report concluded, based on the four most recent national polls, “the more information the pollster provided, the more likely the respondents were to support the deal.”
That’s probably a good sign for the merits of the agreement.
It’s also important to appreciate the degree to which partisanship has kicked in to a degree that wasn’t apparent before. As Zack Beauchamp’s report explained, “Partisanship and ideology are the big drivers of public opinion toward the nuclear deal.”
The Huffington Post’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points out that every poll on the Iran agreement has found one constant: Democrats tend to support the deal, and Republicans tend to oppose it.This suggests that people who don’t know a lot about the nitty-gritty of the deal may be projecting their partisan and ideological predispositions onto it: If you like Obama or you’re a liberal, you like the deal. If you don’t like Obama or you’re a conservative, you don’t like the deal.
This is arguably the shift that matters most in pre-announcement/post-announcement phase. Before the diplomatic agreement was reached, most of the country expressed support for the effort, but after the deal was formalized, Republican and conservative voters were given an unambiguous message from the officials, candidates, pundits, and news organizations they consider reliable: “You’re not supposed to like this.”
In theory, the practical impact of this would be limited – the administration has already struck the deal, and its efficacy will be decided by future events. But congressional Republicans still hope to kill the international agreement, and they intend to use polls to scare lawmakers into submission.
At this point, with survey results pointing in competing directions, the right will probably have to rely on something else.