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Mellman: Critiques more biased than poll

Lauren Schneiderman

Readers know I strongly support President Obama and may recall my tremendous respect, affection and admiration for Secretary of State John Kerry. When I find a public out of sync with their policies, it’s with a heavy heart. 

So it was with a recent poll we conducted on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran. I would not be writing about it were it not for an inaccurate and misleading attack on the survey by the national security editor at the Center for American Progress (CAP), an organization I also hold in high esteem. 

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CAP highlighted the poll under a headline claiming “hawks” were “manipulating polling on Iran.” CAP’s piece offers no original analysis, relying instead on the selective quotation of a more sober, but in my view, still wrongheaded, assessment by Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Smeltz certainly has some criticisms, but it is worth noting the conclusions she either directly supports or fails to dispute — findings that form the overwhelming bulk of the survey. 

There is no disagreement that:

• Americans dislike and feel threatened by Iran;

• voters place a higher priority on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons than on avoiding military conflict with the Islamic republic;

• people believe it is unlikely that Iran will live up to agreements it makes;

• more than 80 percent support sanctions on Iran ;

• while voters support the interim agreement, they would have preferred the U.S. had required Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program before reducing sanctions. (Smeltz notes that, in contrast to our survey, a recent Pew poll actually found a plurality disapproving of the interim agreement); 

• voters dislike the way the administration has handled the Iran issue 

With this wide agreement, CAP’s accusation of “manipulation” rests solely on a few questions dealing with the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill, and I believe the critique is flawed.

It’s focused mainly on labeling this description of the legislation “heavily loaded”:

“Just so we are on the same page there is legislation in the Senate sponsored by 59 Senators from both parties that would trigger new sanctions on Iran if they cheat on the terms of the current interim agreement, fail to negotiate a final deal to eliminate their ability to make nuclear weapons, or if they are found to be involved in a terrorist act against the United States during nuclear talks. Do you favor or oppose this legislation?”

The highlights are Smeltz’s and presumably constitute the phrases she considers “loaded.” I find it hard to see the frequently used “Just so we are on the same page” as loaded.

Terrorism is a big, bad word, but it’s the word the legislation uses and the same word the bill’s critics use in describing the relevant provisions. What alternative would be more appropriate? 

The other bone of contention is apparently the word “cheat.” Here the legislation itself talks about “violations” or “breeches” of the agreement. Would anyone really argue that if only we had said new sanctions would be triggered if Iran “violated the agreement” (instead of “cheat[ed]”) Americans would have opposed this bill?

Finally, Smeltz noted the poll asked how concerned voters would be about a variety of scenarios that “could happen” if Iran developed a nuclear weapon. She claims this biases a subsequent question that accurately presents the arguments actually used for and against Menendez-Kirk. That’s possible, but far from certain. Such questions have to be somewhere, and pollsters have to make judgments about which order is best under the circumstances. 

Because voters initially supported the bill by a whopping 63-point margin, it’s hardly surprising that they still support the legislation after seeing arguments on both sides. 

Smeltz also claims the arguments on both sides in this question use “biased” language. Yes. They are the arguments actually used by both sides. Bias would have been introduced had we not accurately replicated the messaging on both sides. 

Bias in polls is a problem. But not in this one. Indeed, the bias is greater in the critiques than in the poll. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.