For the last few weeks, the general sense is that the US public backs the tentative deal on Iran's nuclear program. So it's surprising to see USA Today (12/9/13) hyping a poll that sends a very different message. Has public opinion shifted? Not really–you simply have to look at what the polls are asking.
Under the print edition headline "Few Trust Iran on Nuclear Accord," USA Today's Susan Page reports that "the White House and Iran face an uphill selling job to convince Americans to embrace the interim nuclear pact negotiated with Tehran last month." Just how bad is it? Page explains that a new USA Today/Pew poll says it's pretty bleak:
In the survey, taken Tuesday through Sunday, 32 percent approve of the deal, 43 percent disapprove. One in four don't know or declined to answer.
This is surprising, since many other polls found the public generally supportive of the deal. Taking a look at the Iran page at PollingReport.com, a CNN poll (11/18-20/13) finds 56 percent favor the deal; an ABC News/Washington Post Poll (11/14-17/13) finds 64 percent approval.
Now, it's entirely possible that Americans have been watching a lot of TV, and have seen a parade of hawks and skeptics talking about the need to increase the sanctions on Iran. But the real difference would seem to be simpler to explain. Those other two polls asked questions that included a summary of the deal. The ABC/Post poll, for instance, put it this way:
Would you support or oppose an agreement in which the United States and other countries would lift some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons?
This new poll, though, asked the question this way:
From what you know, do you approve or disapprove of the agreement between the United States and Iran on Iran's nuclear program?
So why would you get such starkly different results? Because most people actually don't follow this story very closely at all. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they'd heard a little about the agreement, 28 percent said they'd heard nothing at all. But those people are still asked to weigh in on whether they approve or disapprove of the deal. (How does that phone conversation go, exactly? "So, do you know much about this Iran nuclear deal?" "No, not really." "OK, so what's your take on it, then?")
It's not an especially helpful survey–unless you're looking to build opposition to the nuclear deal.