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Mark Mellman: Americans not behind Iran deal

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In our representative democracy, public policy only imperfectly reflects public opinion.

Fortunately, Democrats passed healthcare reform despite the fact that, among the public at the time, opponents outnumbered supporters by 5 to 15 points. Republicans shut down the government in 2013 despite 3-to-1 opposition from voters.  

{mosads}And, of course, Republicans stopped legislation mandating background checks for all gun purchasers even though voters favor the proposal by a 75-point margin.

The Iran nuclear agreement is about to join this list of legislation whose ultimate disposition is contrary to the desire of the majority of Americans.

Of course, the path to that outcome is paved by unusual rules: Only one-third of one chamber of Congress is required to “pass” the agreement.

If it were up to voters, though, Congress would reject it.

The most recent surveys on the deal, by Quinnipiac and Pew, found voters opposing it by 30 and 28-point margins, respectively. Moreover, by 2-to-1, Americans say it will make the world less, rather than more, safe.

A somewhat earlier CBS News poll found voters opposing the agreement by a 13-point margin. In the same survey, Americans opined that “the United States could have negotiated an agreement that was more favorable” to us, by 2-to-1.  

Of course, a few polls of late have offered divergent results. 

One, from the University of Maryland, was not intended to measure opinions but rather to create them. It gives respondents literally a page and a half of explanations and arguments before soliciting their views. 

In other surveys, the cues have been more subtle. 

In an earlier column, I explained that survey questions that argue, in effect, that it’s a good deal, find Americans supporting it. However, when people are asked their opinion in an unbiased way that reflects their own understanding of the agreement, they oppose it. 

Americans, I argued, would favor an agreement with Iran that worked. Most doubt this one will and therefore oppose it.

A mid-August CNN/ORC poll adds weight to my interpretation. 

In asking voters about the deal, the pollsters explained it “would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities.”

The accuracy of some of those assertions is at the core of the debate. Nonetheless, with this explanation, 50 percent favored the agreement and 46 percent opposed it. 

Some disputed my interpretation that questions lacking explanations merely played on Americans’ hostility to Iran without reflecting their feelings on the agreement itself. 

CNN’s next question undercuts that view.

It noted the “U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

Here the reference is clearly to the specific agreement under consideration, not to a hypothetical accord that achieves the goals set out in the earlier query.

All of a sudden, these same voters urged Congress to disapprove of the agreement by a 15-point margin.

Which is a more reasonable interpretation: The public actually favors the agreement but wants Congress to disapprove it? Or that the earlier question was positively (if inadvertently) loaded, indicating voters favor an agreement that would work, while the second question tapped voters’ antipathy to the agreement actually on the table?

Whatever the question used, there is no doubt momentum is with opponents, as opposition to the deal has grown.

In the CNN/ORC survey, the margin asking Congress to reject the deal grew from 8 to 15 points in less than a month. Opposition to the deal doubled between June and the beginning of August, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, while support was unchanged. Pew shows the margin of disapproval increasing from 12 points in July to 28 points now.

Congress is never obliged to execute the public will, and it won’t do so this time.

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

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