The dramatic - if suspiciously well-timed - news of looming direct U.S.-Iran talks (a New York Times story) and the upcoming presidential debate on foreign policy give us ample reason to look at two recent polls on policy toward Iran. The new poll from the Pew Research Center is especially interesting, as it presents one with a question that is not an easy one to answer: What constitutes a “firm stand” on Iran?
Our J Meter tracking of American’s opinion on Iran – if you’re not familiar with our Iran Trend tracker, here’s your chance – uses two indices to measure public opinion. One tracks those polls in which the public is presented with a two-option question: attack or not attack. The other one tracks those polls in which a three-option question is presented: attack, use diplomacy, refrain from attack. As we’ve consistently shown, the different between these two types of polls is significant. Americans, generally speaking, would like to see a tough stance on Iran. When presented with a diplomatic option, however, it leads them to assume (rightly or wrongly, that’s an issue for a different article) that such an option exists – hence, they flock to pick the option that is on the one hand tough, but on the other isn’t violent.
A new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – also published last week – clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. “Americans view Iran and its nuclear ambitions as one of the most critical threats to the United States, but partisanship colors how Americans think Washington should handle Iran”, write the authors of this poll. The “partisanship” is over the option of attack (in this poll, somewhat strangely, the question refers to an attack authorized by the UN). While vast majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents support “tighter economic sanctions on Iran” (86%, 80%, 75% respectively), only Republicans “reach majority support for United Nations authorization of a military strike against Iranian nuclear energy facilities” (with 58%, compared to 41% of Democratic and Independent voters).
The Pew survey is a little more complicated to figure out, since it doesn’t use the familiar formula of presenting actual options, but rather asks a question that is more general: In the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is it more important to take a firm stand or to avoid military conflict? Previous Pew surveys we have used in our Iran tracker asked a more specific question: In your opinion, which is more important - preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action OR avoiding a military conflict with Iran, even if it means they may develop nuclear weapons? This time, we have a “firm stand” – no specification. Do people understand this to possibly mean an attack, or do they support a “firm stand” that is a continuation of current policies, namely a tightening of the sanctions?
Back in May, when Pew published the results of the more specific question – “use military force” or “accept a nuclear armed Iran” – 63% (of Americans) supported an attack, while only 28% said they’d rather accept a nuclear armed Iran. The “firm stand” question, asked in the current poll, and in a poll conducted back in January, elicits a different and somewhat puzzling response: In January, 50% supported the “firm stand” and now it is 56%. In January, 41% said “avoid military conflict” and now it is 35%. So why do I say it is puzzling? Because, counterintuitively, Americans tend to be more combative when they are specifically asked about “taking military action”, and less so when the more vague “firm stand” option is on offer.
So what do we learn from that – what does a “firm stand” mean? Considering the fact that more Americans were telling Pew that they support “taking military action” than the numbers saying they support “firm stand”, I’d assume that respondents understand that firm stand might mean war. And note that a vast majority of Mitt Romney voters – 78% – support a “firm stand”, while a plurality of Obama voters – 48% – would like to “avoid military conflict”. Also somewhat puzzling: While Democrats are always far less supportive of the attack option, Pew found back in May that, “among those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Republicans (79%) are more supportive of turning to military force if necessary than are Democrats (61%) or independents (58%)”. So in May, 61% of Democrats supported an attack, and in October only 43% of Obama supporters would take a firm stand?
Two things should be noted here: 1. In May, it was Democrats and now we’re talking about Obama supporters – not exactly the same group. 2. The divide in May refers to “those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons” – namely to 94% of Americans and not 100% of them. I don’t think though that these two things explain such significant difference between the two polls. I think it probably has to do with the current politicization of all matters, foreign policy included. If half a year ago, most voters could still think about Iran without simultaneously thinking about the state of the presidential race, now they can’t. Many of them, especially Democratic voters, think about Iran with the subconscious assumption that a firm stand means Romney. And that is why more Democrats oppose a firm stand today than those opposing an actual attack half a year ago.
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