Behind the Numbers

Asking the Right Question

Why are polls so all over the map when it comes to bombing Iran?

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

"Lies, damn lies and statistics" is a jab sometimes aimed at political polls, and in the complicated business of foreign policy polling there’s plenty for people to argue over.

Seventy-five percent of Americans see Israel as a friend or an ally. Thirty-seven percent think the United States was right to get involved in Libya last year. Fifty-nine percent believe China poses a major economic threat to the nation.

All these numbers come from polls in the past year, but can they be trusted? And since most Americans aren’t foreign policy wonks, are these results even meaningful? And what about when polls show contradictory findings — like on what to do about Iran’s nuclear threat?

Let’s start with the good news. By and large, polls boast a strong record of accuracy and there’s evidence that poll respondents are doing their part as well. "The public has meaningful opinions on foreign policy issues like domestic issues," says Robert Y. Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, at least where respondents possess a "minimum amount of information on which to base their opinions." Even on issues where there is very little public debate (like, say, on U.S. democracy promotion in Central Asia), poll results in the aggregate can represent a meaningful reaction to a policy.

This is often the case with foreign policy issues, about which few have ruminated laboriously and even fewer know all the facts. The wording of a given question plays a big role in framing the way poll respondents think about the issue and, thus, their answers. Even balanced questions sometimes get varying results, making it difficult to sort out what the public actually wants.

Take the latest controversy over Iran’s nuclear buildup. Americans said by nearly 2 to 1 in a Pew survey this month that it is more important to "prevent Iran from developing weapons, even if it means taking military action" than to "avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons." One could read this result as an implicit call to arms.

But a contemporaneous CNN/ORC poll found just 17 percent supporting "military action right now." Some 60 percent of those polled favored "economic and diplomatic efforts" and an additional 22 percent supported "no action at all. This poll, then, gives the sense that an invasion is remarkably unpopular.

The poll discrepancy may be driven by two underlying attitudes. The American public is quite averse to joining in another military conflict — nearly six in 10 respondents in a 2011 Pew poll said that "good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace." But Americans also see Iran as a serious security threat – 88 percent of voters said as much in a November Quinnipiac University poll.

What gives? "It’s a question of how the issue is framed," says Shapiro. The public picks diplomacy when the question is framed as a choice between going to war with Iran and a solution by other means. But most prefer action when the choice is between "avoiding conflict" and allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

This calculus is colored by the nation’s doubts that diplomacy is working. A majority of voters saw economic sanctions against Iran as an ineffective deterrent in a November Quinnipiac poll. Nevertheless, over half the public at that time still believed that Iran threat could be contained with diplomacy, according to a CBS News poll.

How the public responds is affected by information coming from political leaders, says Shapiro, and people use this as a shortcut to forming their own beliefs. He notes that conservatives have made arguments for using military force with Iran. And, of course, nearly all the GOP presidential candidates talk tough when it comes to Iran. It’s no surprise, then, that Republicans (who are largely conservative) are most supportive of military action in both the Pew and CNN polls.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been more inclined to speak softly and carry a big stick while it puts diplomatic and sanctions pressure on Tehran. Thus, Democrats are more positive toward sanctions and less keen on taking on Iran militarily.

There also may be a machismo factor to issues of war and peace, at least for presidential contenders. Just over half the public called Obama a strong leader in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, and Republican presidential contenders have hammered Obama for not being tougher with Iran, clearly sensing weakness. The next nine months will tell whether that line of attack is potent of not.