A newly released poll by YouGov and YouGov-Cambridge led the Christian Science Monitor to report that “nearly half of Americans now say they would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to stop its uranium enrichment in order to halt its advances toward an ability to build a nuclear weapon.” Indeed, the poll found that 44 percent of Americans supported bombing Iran’s nuclear installations while only 35 percent opposed, a strikingly different result than a United Technologies/National Journal poll released last week which showed that only 17 percent of the U.S. public supported military action against Iran.
Why the discrepancy? An examination of the polling methodology reveals a very different set of questions between the two polls.
The YouGov poll asked respondents [PDF]:
Suppose a number of countries decided to take action against Iran in order to
stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Would you support or oppose your country’s Government taking part or assisting in each of the following?
Respondents were then asked whether they supported or opposed a number of actions including, but not limited to, air strikes. The question puts forth a situation in which a “number of countries” are acting multilaterally to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This hinges on the hypothetical situation that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon — an assertion that neither the IAEA nor U.S. intelligence officials say there is enough evidence to definitely support — and a multilateral coalition coming together to conduct air strikes.
The United Technologies/National Journal poll released last week asked respondents:
As You May Know, Many In Congress And On The WH ’12 Campaign Trail Have Said That Iran Should Not Be Permitted To Produce A Nuclear Weapon. How Far Do You Think The U.S. Should Go To Prevent This?
This question poses no hypothetical scenarios about Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon or a multilateral effort to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The takeaway from the two contrasting poll results is that Americans are not unconditionally in favor of or opposed to military action against Iran. The IAEA and U.S. intelligence officials have expressed concerns about potential military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program but the YouGov polling question presumes a situation in which Iran is verifiably seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon. Details such as whether Iran must be stopped from constructing a nuclear weapon and the presence of a multilateral military campaign, are very important in determining American support for military action.
But the Christian Science Monitor’s headline, “Bomb Iran? Nearly half of Americans say ‘yes’ to halt nuclear program,” completely overlooks the complexity of the polling questions and the YouGov poll’s revealing insights into American thinking on military action against Iran.