The Iran Deal: The More People Hear, the More They Like it

Two surveys have just come out on the Iran nuclear deal that showed very different results. The one that simply asked for their initial reaction found plurality opposition, while the one that explained what the deal was about found solid majority support.

The Pew Research Center first asked people whether they had "heard about a recent agreement on Iran's nuclear program between Iran, the United States and other nations" and then asked, "From what you know, do you approve or disapprove of this agreement?" Thirty three percent approved, 45 percent disapproved and 22 percent had no opinion (this kind of initial response is often driven by preexisting biases, like a negative view of Iran).

However a Washington Post/ABC News survey conducted over approximately the same field period found 56 percent support, 37 percent opposed and 7 percent with no opinion. The key difference was that they explained: "As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons. International inspectors would monitor Iran's facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement, economic sanctions would be imposed again. Do you support or oppose this agreement?"

In April CNN ran a question that also gave the outline of the deal that was being considered at the time. In that case, 53 percent were in support with 43 percent opposed.

Another survey released in June by the Program for Public Consultation of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland gave people even more information and support was even higher. They went through a process called a 'policymaking simulation' in which they received a briefing on the issue of Iran's nuclear program and the draft of the deal being considered in some detail. All of the content was vetted with Congressional staffers from both parties, as well as outside experts, across the spectrum of opinion, to ensure that it was accurate and fair.

It was explained that the core issue was about Iran enriching uranium. The deal would allow Iran to enrich uranium but only to the low levels that would be needed for nuclear energy, but not the much higher level needed for nuclear weapons, and there would be intrusive inspections to ensure that Iran was complying. The alternative approach being promoted in Congress was also presented--ramping up sanctions on Iran to pressure it to give up all uranium enrichment.

Respondents then evaluated three arguments in favor of the deal, three against the deal, three in favor of ramping up sanctions instead, and then three against that idea (all the arguments were vetted by proponents from both sides to ensure these were the strongest ones being made). Interestingly, majorities found all arguments convincing--which means they were really thinking it through. Only then were they finally asked what course they would recommend.

We ran this policymaking simulation with representative panels of registered voters (called Citizen Cabinets) in three states--a red state (Oklahoma), a blue state (Maryland) and a swing state (Virginia), as part of the Voice Of the People program. In all cases, more than seven in ten recommended the deal over ramping up sanctions. In all three states, support was also quite bipartisan with six in ten Republicans favoring the deal, as well large majorities of Democrats and independents. The results can be found here.

When a representative national sample went through this process last February and were presented a rougher outline of the possible deal being discussed at the time, 61 percent favored pursuing such a deal while 36 percent favored ramping up sanctions (read more here).

So is there a right way to survey people? Each approach tells us something important--ranging from their initial reaction to an informed and deliberated conclusion. It is important for members of Congress to know about these initial reactions, but it is also important for them to know what the people would say if they were at the table, and like a member of Congress, getting briefed, considering the pros and cons, and finally making their recommendations. I believe the latter should most influence policy.

Note: Everyone is invited to try the policymaking simulation, which has been updated to reflect the final terms of the deal.