Asking the Right Question


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

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.