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Fuzzy Public Opinion

By Matthew Yglesias on August 29, 2008 at 10:48 am

"Fuzzy Public Opinion"

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Faiz flags some polling by Frank Luntz released recently by The Israel Project showing that 55 percent of Americans woud “United States and its allies making targeted conventional military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities” a number that goes up to 63 percent if you specify that diplomatic and economic sanctions have failed. This reminds me of David Moore’s point from earlier this month about misleading presentation of polling data on Iraq. You could plausibly read pre-war public opinion as supporting an invasion, which is how it was generally presented, but Moore says that if you pried a little bit deeper you’d get a very different result:

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To people who said they favored the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did not send troops to Iraq. And to people who opposed the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did send troops. Just over half of the supposed supporters and a fifth of the opponents said they would not be upset if their opinions were ignored.

The net result: Only 29 percent of Americans supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn’t come about, while 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. Another 38 percent, who had just expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just opined. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn’t care one way or the other.

Basically, the center of public opinion was prepared to defer to official policy and not demanding anything in particular. I can’t at all prove it, but I’m almost 100 percent sure that the situation with regard to Iran is the same. Most people just don’t have detailed or strongly held views about the broad range of topics. If the President says bombing Iran is necessary and can find a bunch of people in suits and ties to go on television as “experts” and say that the bombing was necessary for American security, I’m sure a majority would go along with it. But that’s not the same as saying that public opinion is demanding bombing. Probably if you had a president who just never talked about Iran, 80 percent of the public would pay no attention whatsoever to the progress (if any) of Iran’s nuclear program.

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