Parsing the polls to find where Jews stand on Iran nuclear deal

Parsing the polls to find where Jews stand on Iran nuclear deal

Hundreds of people protesting against the Iran nuclear deal on July 26, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Peter Duke)
Hundreds of people protesting against the Iran nuclear deal on July 26, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Peter Duke)

Millions are being spent on advertisements aimed at swaying the public and putting pressure on lawmakers to either denounce or support the Iran nuclear agreement. But where do American Jews stand on this hot topic?

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles poll concluded that American Jews support the deal by a margin of 20 percentage points, 48 to 28, while the poll sponsored by J Street found an equal margin of support, but with a 60 to 40 breakdown. By contrast, The Israel Project survey found a slight majority of those polled opposed the deal with 47 percent against and 44 percent in favor.

Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, said that given how “malleable” the public is regarding the deal, how questions are framed has a significant impact on respondents’ answers.

Generally speaking, “when you give people a little bit of information, you get a little bit more support for the agreement,” said Kiley.

But, the TIP poll, designed by Nathan Klein, founder of Olive Tree Strategies, found the opposite to be true.

When the nuclear topic was first put in front of respondents, arguments for and against the deal were presented, but in the middle of the survey, respondents were asked to rank from “very concerning” to “not at all concerning” 10 concerns that “foreign policy experts” said they had regarding the deal.

Among the statements respondents were asked to rank were: “Iran will receive an estimated $100 billion-$150 billion in this agreement, money that can be used to support terrorism.” And: “The sanctions on Iran that are related to terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missiles will also be lifted despite no progress or promises from Iran on these issues.”

Following the statement section, respondents were asked, “Now that you have some more information, in your own opinion, do you think that Congress should vote to approve the deal and lift sanctions on Iran or reject the deal and NOT lift sanctions on Iran?”

Respondents were asked that same question at three points during the survey.

Near the beginning of the survey, 40 percent approved the deal while 45 percent rejected it. Near the end of the survey, approval of the deal dropped to 30 percent while disapproval rose to 58 percent.

Klein told JTA that he designed the questions to “educate” respondents. He said he wanted to gauge how respondents’ views would change with more information.

However, the methodology Klein employed is not uncommon, said Kiley, particularly if the researcher wants to see how “attitudes changed through additional information given,” but for a “clean read” of public opinion, look to the responses given before additional information or statements are offered to respondents.

TIP Jewish respondents, when asked: “Recently, the United States and five other countries (known as the P5+1) reached an agreement with Iran regarding the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions in Iran’s nuclear program. Based on what you know, do you approve or disapprove of this agreement?” Of the 1,034 respondents, 44 percent approved, 47 percent disapproved, and 9 percent didn’t know or didn’t offer an opinion.

The J Street poll, designed by Jim Gerstein of GBA Strategies, a public opinion research firm that works for Democratic candidates, and administered to 1,000 respondents between July 21 and 23, only asked two questions specific to the Iran nuclear deal, one regarding the deal itself and the other regarding how Congress should vote.

Read one of the two Iran-related questions: “As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons. International inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement economic sanctions would be imposed again. Do you support or oppose this agreement?”

Respondents had the options of strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose and strongly oppose. “No opinion” was not an option as it was in the other two surveys.

Klein criticized the omission, telling JTA that it introduced a bias in favor of the Iran deal, but Gerstein pushed back stating that there is widespread distrust of the government, which, if anything, would cause respondents without an opinion to oppose the deal.

That’s the inherent flaw with online surveys, said Kiley. Both the J Street and TIP polls were conducted online. Only the Jewish Journal utilized a telephone survey.

Kiley said it’s a common practice for those administering a phone survey to not offer “an explicit ‘I don’t know’ as an option, [but] if a respondent doesn’t offer an opinion or if the person says ‘I don’t know,’ that response can be registered; but with an online poll, you don’t [always] have that option.”

“One of the benefits of phone polls,” she added, “is that there is a probability that any American with a phone can be dialed randomly — weighted for demographics and such — but with online polls, that’s not how they’re designed generally.”

The Jewish Journal’s survey, conducted by phone, called only respondents who identified as Jewish in previous surveys unrelated to the Iran deal. TIP conducted its poll via email, using a third-party company to find self-identified Jews. For the J Street poll, Gerstein contracted with Mountain West Research Center to administer the online survey by email to Jews who identified themselves by religion or consider themselves Jewish.

The wording of the J Street poll question is identical to the ABC News-Washington Post survey published in late July, done purposefully, Gerstein told JTA, to compare the Jewish-specific survey results against the general population. The ABC News-Washington Post poll results published on July 20 found that 56 percent of Americans supported the deal while 37 percent oppose.

New secular polls have shown support of the deal slipping. In an extreme example, a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found that 57 percent of Americans oppose the deal while 28 percent support it and 15 percent either didn’t know or didn’t express an opinion. The question asked simply: “Do you support or oppose the nuclear deal with Iran?” No clarifying language of the nature of the deal or negotiations was offered.

The Pew Research Center similarly abstained from offering details. Instead, respondents were asked: “How much, if anything, have you heard about a recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program between Iran, the United States and other nations?” Followed by: “From what you know, do you approve or disapprove of this agreement?”

When formatted in such a way, Pew found that of the overall public, 33 percent approved, 45 percent disapproved, and 22 percent offered no opinion. Of the 79 percent of the 2,002 adults surveyed between July 14 and 20 who said they’d heard of the deal, 38 percent expressed approval, 48 percent disapproved, and 14 percent offered no opinion.

Of the Jewish polls, the Jewish Journal contained the most neutral verbiage. Steven M. Cohen, a demographer with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, designed the questions and supervised the poll conducted by Social Science Research Solutions Omnibus.

The key question was worded: “As you know, an agreement was reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major 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. Do you support or oppose this agreement, or don’t know enough to say?”

Of the 501 Jews surveyed by phone, 47.8 percent said they support the deal, 27.6 oppose and 24.6 percent didn’t know.

As to how Congress should vote, respondents were asked, simply, “Should Congress vote to approve or oppose the deal?” When asked in those neutral terms, 53.6 percent said approve, 34.7 percent said oppose, and 11.7 percent responded “don’t know.”

Jewish Journal also gets praise for rotating between the placement of “good idea” and “bad idea” for the question: “In retrospect was it a (good idea) or a (bad idea) for the U.S. to conduct negotiations with Iran, or are you not sure whether it was a good idea or bad idea?”

Of the respondents, 57.9 percent said it was a good idea, 18.2 percent said it was a bad idea, and 23.9 percent were unsure.

If the Jewish Journal poll is accepted as the least biased, then American Jews, though skeptical of Iran’s ability to live up to its agreements, are divided but mostly in favor of the deal.

Melissa Apter is a political writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at JTA contributed to this story.