POLITICS
07/21/2015 06:54 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2015

Contradictory Iran Polls Show Why It Matters How You Ask

People sometimes fall back on partisan cues when they lack information.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Americans widely support the Iran deal. Or they tend to favor it. Or they generally disapprove.

Three new polls reached those somewhat contradictory conclusions, showing how the wording of a poll question can matter, especially in tracking opinions on complex international issues.

 A Washington/Post ABC poll, which outlined the deal as aiming "to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons" and cited the possibility of further sanctions if the country doesn't comply, found 56 percent of Americans in favor of the deal. Pew Research, which didn't describe the terms of the deal, but simply asked people whether or not they approved, found just 33 percent in support, and 38 percent approval among those who said they'd at least heard about the agreement.

A third poll, conducted online by YouGov, described the deal as "an international agreement that will limit Iran’s nuclear activity in return for the lifting of major economic sanctions against Iran." The YouGov results landed in the middle, with 43 percent in favor of the agreement. YouGov, unlike the other surveys, gave people an explicit option to say that they were unsure about the deal, which 26 percent opted to take.

"The different findings on public views of the Iran nuclear agreement in the Washington Post/ABC News and Pew Research Center surveys highlight how question wording -- and the information provided in a question -- can impact public opinion, particularly on issues where public views are still being shaped and information levels are relatively low," the authors of the Pew report wrote.

The results also highlight how, lacking information on a specific issues, people may tend to fall back on partisan cues to express what they think -- which often leads to a default split down party lines. In the Pew survey, which gave Americans the least information about the deal, Republicans were 41 percentage points more likely than Democrats to disapprove of the deal. In the Post/ABC poll, which provided more details, that difference fell to 29 points.

Washington Post pollster Scott Clement noted that the partisan split was even smaller in a survey this spring that subjected a panel to "a detailed briefing and history of Iran's nuclear program and current policy issues" before asking members for their thoughts on the program.

Despite the differences in the three surveys, there is one constant: People are generally skeptical of Iran. In the Pew survey, just 26 percent of Americans who've heard about the deal had even a fair amount of confidence that Iran's leaders will uphold their side of the agreement. In the Post/ABC and YouGov polls, just 35 percent and 23 percent, respectively, expressed at least some confidence that the deal would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons  

Pew surveyed 2,002 adults from July 14 to July 20, and the Post/ABC poll surveyed 1,002 adults from July 16 to July 19. Both used live callers to reach landlines and cell phones. YouGov surveyed 1,000 adults from July 14 to July 16, using an online panel.

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