Behind the Numbers

Asking the Right Question

Why are polls so all over the map when it comes to bombing Iran?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

"Lies, damn lies and statistics" is a jab sometimes aimed at political polls, and in the complicated business of foreign policy polling there's plenty for people to argue over.

Seventy-five percent of Americans see Israel as a friend or an ally. Thirty-seven percent think the United States was right to get involved in Libya last year. Fifty-nine percent believe China poses a major economic threat to the nation.

All these numbers come from polls in the past year, but can they be trusted? And since most Americans aren't foreign policy wonks, are these results even meaningful? And what about when polls show contradictory findings -- like on what to do about Iran's nuclear threat?

Let's start with the good news. By and large, polls boast a strong record of accuracy and there's evidence that poll respondents are doing their part as well. "The public has meaningful opinions on foreign policy issues like domestic issues," says Robert Y. Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University, at least where respondents possess a "minimum amount of information on which to base their opinions." Even on issues where there is very little public debate (like, say, on U.S. democracy promotion in Central Asia), poll results in the aggregate can represent a meaningful reaction to a policy.

This is often the case with foreign policy issues, about which few have ruminated laboriously and even fewer know all the facts. The wording of a given question plays a big role in framing the way poll respondents think about the issue and, thus, their answers. Even balanced questions sometimes get varying results, making it difficult to sort out what the public actually wants.

Take the latest controversy over Iran's nuclear buildup. Americans said by nearly 2 to 1 in a Pew survey this month that it is more important to "prevent Iran from developing weapons, even if it means taking military action" than to "avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons." One could read this result as an implicit call to arms.

But a contemporaneous CNN/ORC poll found just 17 percent supporting "military action right now." Some 60 percent of those polled favored "economic and diplomatic efforts" and an additional 22 percent supported "no action at all. This poll, then, gives the sense that an invasion is remarkably unpopular.

The poll discrepancy may be driven by two underlying attitudes. The American public is quite averse to joining in another military conflict -- nearly six in 10 respondents in a 2011 Pew poll said that "good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace." But Americans also see Iran as a serious security threat - 88 percent of voters said as much in a November Quinnipiac University poll.

What gives? "It's a question of how the issue is framed," says Shapiro. The public picks diplomacy when the question is framed as a choice between going to war with Iran and a solution by other means. But most prefer action when the choice is between "avoiding conflict" and allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

This calculus is colored by the nation's doubts that diplomacy is working. A majority of voters saw economic sanctions against Iran as an ineffective deterrent in a November Quinnipiac poll. Nevertheless, over half the public at that time still believed that Iran threat could be contained with diplomacy, according to a CBS News poll.

How the public responds is affected by information coming from political leaders, says Shapiro, and people use this as a shortcut to forming their own beliefs. He notes that conservatives have made arguments for using military force with Iran. And, of course, nearly all the GOP presidential candidates talk tough when it comes to Iran. It's no surprise, then, that Republicans (who are largely conservative) are most supportive of military action in both the Pew and CNN polls.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been more inclined to speak softly and carry a big stick while it puts diplomatic and sanctions pressure on Tehran. Thus, Democrats are more positive toward sanctions and less keen on taking on Iran militarily.

There also may be a machismo factor to issues of war and peace, at least for presidential contenders. Just over half the public called Obama a strong leader in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, and Republican presidential contenders have hammered Obama for not being tougher with Iran, clearly sensing weakness. The next nine months will tell whether that line of attack is potent of not.

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Behind the Numbers

One Nation Under God

With Obama’s contraceptive plan putting him in hot water, how much does religion really matter at the ballot box?

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Religion and politics collided once again this month as religious groups -- led by Catholic bishops -- objected to requirements to provide contraceptive-covering insurance in President Barack Obama's health insurance rules. America's widely varying levels of religious commitment, even within denominations, makes the outcome of such firestorms hard to predict.

It's turned into quite the campaign issue, which has pollsters wondering whether religion can really tip the scales. Catholics represent about one in four adults in America, which makes the backlash from bishops to Obama's new regulations potentially consequential. The rules -- which Obama later modified -- would have required religiously affiliated institutions to provide health plans that cover birth control, a practice with which they have a moral disagreement. Alienating such a large group could severely endanger his chances at re-election in November.

But Catholics, like Protestants and other religious groups in the United States, are far from monolithic. Only one in three self-identified Catholics reported attending Mass every week in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll. And even that figure may be an overestimate -- given Americans' tendency to say they are more churchgoing than they actually are.

Obama's popularity among Catholics hasn't taken a big hit, at least in the short term. His overall approval rating among Catholics in Gallup polls ticked down from 49 to 46 percent amid the controversy, a change within the margin of sampling error. While most Catholics in a Pew poll released this week said religiously affiliated employers should not be required to pay for contraceptives, just 15 percent said they believe using contraceptives is morally wrong.

So how much could this affect the 2012 campaign? Catholics represent just one aspect of America's complex religion and politics calculus. Among Protestants, white evangelicals are a cornerstone of the Republican base, while white mainline (or non-evangelical) Protestants represent a key swing voting group. Black Protestants are overwhelmingly Democratic.

For white evangelicals, religion seems to be making more of a difference in the Republican primary than it will when Obama is on the ballot. Romney has struggled to win evangelicals in early primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, but national polls show evangelicals overwhelmingly back Romney in a matchup against Obama.

For many religious voters, specific religious issues may play less of a role than long-held partisan loyalties. And in the general election, one key factor will be how voters with no religion cast their ballots. This group has grown and voted increasingly Democratic over the past two decades, and backed Obama over McCain by a 52-point margin in 2008, according to exit polls. Over six in 10 of religiously unaffiliated voters approved of Obama in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, marking a shift from November last year, when just as many disapproved as approved.

For some perspective, it's interesting to look at how America's religiosity compares with other countries. Most nations tend to gravitate toward either end of the spectrum -- either highly religious or overwhelmingly secular. The United States falls in the middle. Roughly six in 10 Americans say religion is "very important" in their lives. That's about three times as many Britons who gave religion such prominence in Pew surveys in recent years and nearly double the number of Canadians who say this. The story is similar for Germany (where 25 percent say religion is "very important"), Italy (24), Spain (23), France (13) and Sweden (8). Compared to Europe, the United States is God's own country.

But Americans profess less religious zeal than people living in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Around eight in 10 Egyptians see religion as very important, a number that rises even higher in Rwanda (90) and Senegal, where religious commitment surges to 98 percent.

American politicians are well aware of voters' religious commitment. Nearly every single member of Congress professes a religious faith, and Democrats have worked hard to shed the stereotype that they are less friendly toward religion than Republicans. For candidates looking to connect with voters in 2012, "God bless America" is still a good refrain.

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