Would American and Allied Public Opinion Support Military Action if the Iran Negotiations Fail?

July 2, 2015

Richard C. Eichenberg

Twitter: @IkeEichenberg

 Negotiations continue in Vienna on an agreement that would limit the Iranian nuclear program.  As the talks continue, it is useful to ask: how will public opinion react if the negotiations fail?

Although the wisdom and likely effectiveness of a military strike against Iran have been much debated, the position of the American government has long been that military action remains “on the table.”    Whether President Obama or any future President would choose the military option is obviously uncertain, but one factor that will likely condition the choice is the anticipated reaction of public opinion, both in the United States and in allied countries.

In the US, public support for military action against Iran has been lukewarm over the past ten years –an average of 45 percent from 2002-2013 –although it climbed to over 50 percent after President Obama initiated negotiations with Iran. This is lower than the 60 percent of the public that supported war with Iraq prior to 2003, and it is probably the frustrations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have left Americans less than enthusiastic about further military endeavors.

Another reason may be the simple fact that negotiations are underway and that some progress has already been made in the form of an interim agreement (which the public supports). Public opinion generally favors negotiation and nonmilitary solutions so long as these are realistic alternatives, but pollsters rarely test respondents by asking them what action they would favor should negotiation prove fruitless.

An important exception is a series of questions on Iran in the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends surveys. A first question in the battery asks: “As you may know, efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons are under way. Which of the following do you think is the best option?”  Respondents are then offered alternatives that include “military action,”  “economic incentives,”  “economic sanctions,” “support to opponents of the government,” and “use of computer technology to sabotage nuclear installations.”  A final response option is to “accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.”

This is a complicated question, but the public’s preferences are clear:  an average of only 7 percent of Europeans in 2014 chose “military action” over the alternatives (in the US it was 12 percent).  Among the nonmilitary options, economic incentives and economic sanctions were far and away the most popular options.  The breakdown of responses to this question have been very stable since 2010.

A second question was directed to those respondents who chose nonmilitary options in the first question: “And now imagine that all of these non-military options have been tried and the only option left to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is the use of military force. In that case, should the [European Union/United States/Turkey/Russia] take military action against Iran, or should [it/they] simply accept that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons?”

The responses to this second question are shown below: (click to enlarge image)

iranmil14An important feature of the responses to this question is the unusually high number of “don’t know” and refusals—an average of 22 percent and as high as 30 or 40 percent in some countries. Many respondents simply do not want to answer this question or express an opinion, perhaps because it presents a choice that genuinely conflicts many citizens, or perhaps because they prefer their own alternative (a wish that negotiations could somehow continue?).

Support for military action (combining “military action” in the first and second questions) is divided, although it is higher in some countries than recent levels of support for other military interventions, including intervention in the Syrian civil war (see 2013 and 2014 surveys here). Majorities favoring military action against Iran if negotiations fail exist in only five of the thirteen countries in the survey, although rejection of military action characterizes opinion in several important P5+1 countries, including Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, I think caution is warranted concerning the firmness of this support.  One reason is the high nonresponse rate noted above.  I suspect –although it is pure speculation—that many of these respondents would have preferred a response option along the lines of “keep trying…continue negotiation to find an agreement.”  If so, actual support levels are probably somewhat lower than those shown above. Further, even if the current negotiations do not succeed (or if violations of any eventual agreement are debated), further negotiation or employment of nonmilitary instruments of policy are likely to follow, and citizens have shown a clear preference for these options over the use of military force.  Finally,  the questions above refer to “military action” by the “European Union” –only in Turkey, Russia and the US are national military forces referenced.  As I showed in this paper, support for using force is always highest when the question refers to an abstract “military action” rather than to a specific action, such as sending troops.

The latter type of specific question was asked in Transatlantic Trends only in 2012 (the overall responses to the preliminary questions were very similar to those from 2014 shown above).  Respondents who chose “military action” to either preliminary question were asked further if they would support using their own country’s military forces  a.] to conduct air strikes or b.] to send ground troops.

The results are shown below for five of the six countries involved in the P5+1 talks with Iran (there is no survey for China). The chart shows clearly that support for conducting air strikes or sending ground troops is extremely unpopular in every country (although air strikes enjoy majority support in the US, confirming a similar result found by the Chicago Council on World Affairs in 2014).  Even lower levels of support characterize opinion in other countries (not shown).  The upshot of the results is that, even though respondents may support “military action” in the abstract, they shy away from supporting the use of their own country’s military forces. If the US does conduct airstrikes, it would likely act alone.




Summary and Conclusions

The surveys presented above point to three conclusions.  First, negotiations with Iran continue, consumers of polls should be cautious with the proclivity of pollsters to ask about an abstract “military action.”  As was the case in the run-up to the Iraq War, support for using force is inflated in such questions.  Second, public opinion in all countries prefers nonmilitary instruments of policy when dealing with Iran, including nonmilitary economic coercion.  So long as any type of negotiation with Iran continues –even in the absence of a final agreement—public opinion is likely to prefer nonmilitary instruments to the use of military force. Finally, even in the event of a complete breakdown in negotiations –or arguments that any agreement is flawed– support for specific uses of military force, such as air strikes or sending troops, is unpopular based on past patterns.  Whether this would change in the context of a renewed harsh tone in relations with Iran remains unknown, but the surveys from 2012 shown immediately above suggest that an attack on Iran would be a hard sell with public opinion in most countries.


Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was an academic adviser to the Transatlantic Trends surveys from 2004 through 2014, which means that I helped write many of the questions.  However, I cannot take credit for the Iran questions presented here.  They were the brainchild of another academic adviser, Professor Pierangelo Isernia of the University of Sienna.

Thanks to Pierangelo Isernia, Bruce Jentleson, and Dina Smeltz for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

No, Americans are not misremembering their support for the Iraq War

May 27, 2015

Richard Eichenberg

Twitter: @IkeEichenberg

A recent YouGov/Economist survey seems to suggest that the American people are misremembering their level of support for the Iraq invasion in 2003.  As the figure below shows, only 38% of Americans say today that they supported sending troops to Iraq back in 2003, whereas 63% of Americans said they supported the invasion in a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll conducted in February 2003.  YouGov’s interpretation: “Americans’ memories of their own past beliefs about the 2003 Iraq War are tinged with their current feelings about what has taken place there since and what is taking place there now.”


There is one problem with this interpretation: it is wrong.  The 2015 question from YouGov was asked after respondents had been exposed to extensive reporting and public debate about the human costs and the frustrations of the war.  In order to accurately compare results from 2003 and 2015, the appropriate question therefore is how the public evaluated a possible war in 2003 when similar considerations were included in survey questions (the Gallup/CNN/USA Today question from 2003 does not mention these considerations).

My own research, along with research I’ve conducted with Richard Stoll, show that citizens’ answers in 2003 were very close to what they think today. True, as shown below, in 49 individual survey questions that were asked from the beginning of 2003 through the day before the invasion, 62% of Americans favored some form of military action –almost identical to the 2003 numbers shown above.  However, as the chart below also shows, in the fourteen available questions that mentioned “ground troops” in the same time period, the percentage was lower – 57%.  Further, if casualties were mentioned in conjunction with any military action, support was 52%. Finally, if sending ground troops and casualties were both specifically mentioned in the question, support dropped to 42% –not far off the number that You/Gov ascertained just last week (the 3 questions were asked in the last three months of 2002).


In summary, when Americans were asked before the war began in 2003 if they would support sending troops that would experience casualties, far less than a majority said yes.  And that is about the same number who say they remember it that way in the YouGov poll.

The view that the American people supported the war in 2003 seems to be widespread, and these polls help us to understand why.  Polling organizations asked about support for the war 49 times from the beginning of 2003 through the day of the invasion of Iraq, but only 4 of those questions asked about support if casualties would be suffered.  More than half of the questions (26) referred to an unspecified, abstract “military action,” for which average support was 66%, but as the figure above shows, support was much lower when specific actions or casualties were mentioned.

The potential skepticism of the public about the war that was about to occur was underestimated for a simple reason: the pollsters rarely asked the right question.  One thing is clear however: the recent You/Gov poll shows that American citizens accurately remember they opposed the war that they got.


I am grateful to Jeffrey Berry, Debbie Schildkraut, Richard Stoll, and Janie Velencia  for comments on an earlier draft



Richard Eichenberg, “Victory Has Many Friends: The American Public and the Use of Military Force, 1981-2005,” International Security 35/1, (Summer 2005).

Richard Eichenberg and Richard Stoll, The Political Fortunes of War: Iraq and the Domestic Standing of President George W. Bush,  London: The Foreign Policy Centre, July 2004.

Do Women Dislike Drone Strikes More Than Other Types of Airstrikes?  (yes, but only a little)

February 27, 2015

Surveys in many countries show very large gender differences in approval of strikes by pilot less drones. For example, in June 2013, the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey asked the following question (click on any image to enlarge):



















Similar results occurred in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in Spring 2013; the average gender difference in support for drone strikes was 20 percentage points:



The consistency of this finding has led to speculation as to why women should be particularly negative about drone strikes and even to some disagreement as to whether gender is really a significant cleavage in public opinion on war and peace issues.  Insightful analysis here, here, and here.

A frequently cited explanation for the large gender difference on drones is that women are more sensitive to civilian casualties, and there is some evidence for this in American public opinion (as in this survey by Pew from February 2013). However, this same Pew survey of the US revealed that women are also more likely to cite other reasons for opposing drones, including concerns about their legality, their effect on the US image, and concerns about retaliation by “extremists.”

Thus, it may simply be that opposition to drones among women is part of a broader pattern of greater skepticism toward the use of military force.

An additional question is why drone strikes should evoke stronger gender difference than other types of air and missile attacks.  After all, press treatment of drone technologies emphasizes their technological sophistication and “last minute” target acquisition capabilities.  Surely citizens have gained the impression that collateral civilian damage from such strikes, while possible and even evident, may be less than conventional air strikes from fighter or high-flying bombers?  We know, for example, that the public reacted negatively to several instances of mistaken air attacks against civilian targets during the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Kosovo in 1999, and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (see the excellent Rand Corporation study of public reaction to these incidents by Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savychof  here).

In this post, I provide additional insight on these questions. The analysis draws on my study of gender difference in opinions of the use of force in as many as 37 countries from 1990 through 2004. Complete details on my definitions and other methodological issues are provided in this paper. Briefly summarized, I evaluate “support for using military force” by including any survey question that seeks a positive or negative opinion on “the potential or actual use of military force [past, present, or future]… including questions that actively (if sometimes hypothetically) query approval or disapproval of an action involving military force as a means of policy and also including questions that ask if the action is justified, appropriate, or the right thing to do.”

The dataset includes survey measures of support for using military force in six historical episodes: the Gulf War of 1991; the ensuing confrontation with Iraq over weapons inspections (1991-2002); NATO’s intervention in Bosnia (1992-1995); NATO’s attack against Serbia in support of the Kosovar Albanians (1998-1999); the US war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (2001-2004); and the war against Iraq and subsequent occupation (during 2003-2004).  The full dataset includes 612 survey measures of support for using force, drawn from 37 countries (for a separate analysis of American public opinion since 1984, see this paper). In the analysis below, survey questions about air or missile strikes were asked in 31 countries; most (but not all) of these occur in NATO member countries.

In this post, “gender difference” is the percentage of women who support the use of force minus the same percentage for men.

The first chart below shows that women are less supportive of any type of military action, but air and missile strikes are indeed the type of action that evokes the largest gender difference: women are less supportive by an average of 18 percentage points (note: the average for naval actions is based on only four survey questions).  Note also that the gender difference of 18 percentage points is identical to the average for drone strikes in the GMF survey shown above, and it is only slightly smaller than the average in the Pew survey from Spring 2013 (20 percentage points).


Gender Difference in support for military actions












The chart shown below indicates that air or missile strikes elicited larger gender differences in four of the six episodes in my study.  Although I do not show the results for individual countries here, gender difference on air or missile strikes is the largest for any military action in all but five countries (the exceptions are Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey).


Gender Difference in Support for Air or Missiles Strikes Compared to Other Military Actions Combined


 These results make clear that the large gender difference on the question of using drones is not unique: women dislike air and missile strikes (relative to men) by a margin that is at most only slightly lower than their dislike for drone strikes.  However, what these summary results do not tell us is why drone, air, and missile strikes should evoke such a large gender difference compared to other types of military actions.  As noted above, it may be that women are more sensitive to casualties, but the results here indicate that the issue is not casualties in the absolute: sending or increasing troops are actions that also risk casualties, but the gender difference for these actions is smaller.  It may be that air strikes and drone strikes risk higher civilian casualties (as the Pew surveys seem to find), which might imply that women are more likely than men to feel empathy or solidarity with civilians in target countries. Finally, it may be that the sudden, unexpected nature of air strikes evokes the greater sense of vulnerability to violence that women are known to experience relative to men (see this paper for an interesting discussion of this possibility). Which of these explanations is closest to the mark is something we cannot say on the basis of aggregate percentages such as those presented here, so a fuller understanding of gender difference must await additional research that explores these hypotheses in greater detail at the individual level.


Follow on Twitter:  @IkeEichenberg




No, the American Public Does Not Like Torture

December 10, 2014

With the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, I have already seen claims that, morality aside,  the American public accepts or indeed “likes” torture.

This is factually incorrect.

The assertion is sometimes based on a question that was frequently asked by the Pew Center for the People and the Press.  The text of the questions reads:

 Pew:  “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

From the standpoint of survey science, this question is problematic. Note that it offers 3 responses about how often torture  may be justified, but only 1 response that it is “never” justified.  The cards seem a bit stacked here (still: from 2004 to 2011, the average responses to this question were as follows:  46% often or sometimes justified; 50% rarely or never justified.)

The question has an additional flaw: it states as a premise that  torture can  “gain important information”.  But we know from the Senate’s report that this premise is debatable, to say the least.

The Pew Center does good work, but this question is not an example of it. More details on this question appear in my paper on the subject.

If we compare alternative survey question wordings on torture, the picture changes considerably.  For example, here are two questions asked by other survey organizations:


Gallup: “Would you be willing — or not willing — to have the U.S. government….Torture known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S?” (average of 2001 and 2005)

Not Willing   56%

Willing           41%


ABC/WP: “Would you regard the use of torture against people suspected of involvement in terrorism as an acceptable or unacceptable part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism?” (average of 2003 – 2005)

Acceptable         31%

Unacceptable    66%

Source for above here

If we go beyond these general questions to include very graphic questions about specific torture techniques that we now know were utilized,  we find not just rejection but revulsion.  See, for example, Table 3 in  this excellent article.

Who Likes Torture?

The following graphics provides an answer.  In 2009, following President Obama’s announcement of his executive order banning torture, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked the following. “Do you support this [Obama’s] position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?” (January 2009 – June 2009).

The responses are shown in the graphic below.  When Obama announced his torture ban in January, Republican men were the only group who opposed it.  This changed later when Vice President Cheney mobilized Republicans in defense of the practices of the Bush administration.

Percent who believe “there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects”

(that is,  they oppose the Obama ban on torture)   — click to enlarge




Source: ABC/Washington Post surveys (see Table 1 and Appendix 1 in this paper)



October Weekly Focus: Gender Difference in Four Crucial States

October 31, 2012


October Weekly Focus: Gender Difference in Four Crucial States

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson


(polls through October 28th)

Note: all percentages based on 2 party vote, dk’s excluded

(Update, 10/31:  Graphic corrected to show VA, not FL, in title)


Our previous posts have shown a very stable division of the gender vote for most of October both nationally and in the so-called swing states (based on polls through October 24th).  In this post, we update polls through October 28 for four crucial states: CO, OH, NH, and VA. We chose these states because of their obvious importance to the electoral college, but also because in at least three of them (CO, NH, and VA), there have been some signs in late October polling that Obama’s position may have improved slightly, and it is interesting to examine whether this improvement is due to the gender division of the vote.

There have been 69 polls in these four states during October, totalling over 58,000 respondents.  The average is 5,000 to 15,000 respondents per week. Still, even at these large sample sizes, we should treat any change in percentages of 2 percent or less with caution.  Sampling error and other statistical noise does not disappear, even at large sample sizes.

The graphic below shows the weekly average gender division of the vote in the four states combined.  The pattern is very familiar; after leading in September, Obama’s share of both the male and female vote declined in October, reaching a stable level of approximately 55 percent of women and 45 percent of men (one extra word of caution: this includes only 3 polls after Oct 28th).

Given sampling error and other noise, the best characterization is that these combined percentages have been largely unchanged since October 7th.

(click on image to enlarge)

State-by-State Summary

The number of polls for each state are relatively small on a weekly basis (monthly totals for each state are presented in other posts), so we do not show them graphically.

Nonetheless, a summary of the weekly progression of the polls in October is as follows:

CO:  Obama’s share of women’s votes in CO have been extremely stable at 54-55 percent since October 7th , with male vote stable at about 45-46%

NH  polls have been somewhat erratic. With that caveat, it is the only one of these four states that shows some signs of an increase in Obama’s share of the female vote: from 51-53 percent in the first half of October (which was a major drop from September) to 57-59 percent during the last two weeks of October (which approaches the 60 percent among women that Obama enjoyed in late September and the first week of October).

OH:  the gender race in Ohio has been rock solid stable at 56 percent Obama among women and 47 percent among men, with the overall Obama vote in Ohio between 51-52 percent since October 7.

VA:   There is a mixed pattern in VA, with the Obama female share fluctuating between 54 percent (Oct 27)  to as high as 58 percent (Oct 20), but the overall Obama vote in VA has been stable at 51 percent.

Summary Statistics for this Post

Number of polls and respondents by week (four state totals)

week               #polls    #respondents

Sept 30-Oct 6     6          6397

Oct 7-13          17        14980

Oct 14-20        13        11186

Oct 21-27        22        16512

Oct 28- Nov3     3          2192

Total    61        51267

Number of polls in October, by State

state     #polls   #respondents

CO       11         9876

NH       10          6228

OH       23        20106

VA       17        15057

Total    61        51267

Update in response to questions: polling organizations represented in this post

[number of polls and total respondents]

ANGUSREID         1    550
ARG                          6    3600
CNN/ORC                1    722
FOX                           2    2257
GRAVIS                   3    4111
GROVE                     2    1000
GarinHart                1    807
Gravis                        1    645
LAKE                          3    1400
NBC/WSJ/Marist   10    11407
NEWSMAXZOBGY    2    1674
PPP                               11    8624
PURP                             3    1800
QUINN/CBS                1    1548
QUINN/CBS/NYT    2    2542
SUFFOLK                     2    1100
SVYUSA                       3    2030
TIME                               1    783
UNH                                2    1318
WashPost                      1    1228
YOUGOV    3    2121

Total    61    51267



Gender Difference in 11 Key States

October 29, 2012

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University

(polls through October 24th)

In an earlier post,  we showed that the approximately two point drop in President Obama’s national poll standing from September to October was not due to a disproportionate decline among women.  In fact, he dropped by exactly two percentage points among both genders.

The question in this post is whether the same pattern characterizes his standing in eleven key states –what some have called “swing states”.

As we shall see, the answer is mixed:  Obama’s standing has on average declined slightly more among women in the key states, but the decline is actually concentrated in just a few states.  In other states, his support has held steady among women or even slightly increased.  And perhaps most importantly, even after these declines, Obama leads among women and overall in almost every swing state.

The Situation in Five Toss-up States

The five states below are currently listed as “toss ups” on most of the professional polling sites.  As the graphic shows, one reason for this is that Obama lost slight leads in all of these states as a result of a decline in his polling numbers in October.  On average, Obama lost -1.2 percent in these states and -2.9 percent among women.

(click on image to enlarge)

As the graphic also shows, however, these averages mask considerable variety.  In North Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire, Obama declined noticeably, while the decline in Colorado and Virginia was less (and may even be indistinguishable from sampling error and other statistical noise).

In summary, the picture provided by these toss-up states is one of diversity.  In three important states, Obama seems to have declined more among women than among men.  In other states, this was not the case.  Why each state takes the pattern that it does will have to be the subject of future research.


The Situation in Six States That Lean Obama

The situation is similarly diverse among states that most professional poll sites consider safe or leaning to Obama as of October 29.  In the graphic below, we show the level of support among men and women in these states for September and October.  Several patterns are evident.  First, in two states –Michigan and Wisconsin– Obama actually increased his lead among women from September to October (or held steady), one reason that he seems to be comfortably ahead in those states.

(click on image to enlarge)

In most of the rest of these states, Obama experienced small declines  of 2-3 percent among women, but in some cases these declines were offset by an increase in support among men (PA, NV). Third (and not shown in the graph), Obama is running ahead of his margin of 2008 victory among women in five important states: FL, IA, OH, MI, and VA. Finally, given the rash of speculation in the press about whether Obama has “lost” his advantage among women in the “swing states”, it is useful to point out that this graphic and the one shown above demonstrates that Obama is ahead among women in all of the 11 eleven states that most observers consider crucial to the outcome in the electoral college –sometimes by very large amounts in important states.


There are several caveats to the points made above.  First, many of the changes from September to October are small, averaging -3.0% in the first graph and -2.5% in the second (and in both graphs there are outliers that have a large affect on the average). Even with a large number of respondents for a pooled sample of surveys for each state and month, some margin of error remains (on the order of 1-2%; see sample sizes below). For this reason, it is probably useful to focus only on states where the change has been larger than 2% or so: FL, NH, IA, NV, and PA).  Second, it is worth noting that in many states,  the decline in Obama’s share of the vote occurs from a large cushion in September, and in some cases (PA) it may simply mean that vote shares are returning to their “normal” mean for that state.  Finally,  the polls reported in this post end on October 24th,  two days after the final presidential debate.  But many professional polls sites have shown a continuing improvement in Obama’s position after this date, and in particular an improvement in several states covered in this post (CO, VA, and possibly FL and NH in particular).  For this reason, our next post will report updated numbers for these four and perhaps two other states (OH and NC).

Number of polls and respondents for October (through Oct 24th)

state #polls #respondents

CO    9         8676
FL    16     13849
IA    7         5750
MI    1            895
NC    6          6395
NH    8         4854
NV    13    10378
OH    20    18058
PA    8          5914
VA    13    11777
WI    8         7099

Total    109    93645




















Gender Difference in National Polls: Has Obama Lost His Gender Advantage?

October 28, 2012

Gender Difference in National and State-Level Polling in the 2012 Election

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University


October 27, 2012

(polls reported in this post through Oct 24, 2012)


To say that gender is an important factor in the election is to state the obvious.  Beginning as early as last winter, policy debates and legislation affecting women have been a central theme of contention in the campaign, and of course the question of which candidate has an advantage among women voters has become a central preoccupation of poll watchers.

This is nothing new (see the scholarly references in the separate post at right).  There has been a noticeable, if variable, gender difference in presidential elections since at least 1992.  In 2012, however, the voting intentions of women have taken on added significance because of the salience of women’s issues and because the race in the Electoral College is so close.  As a result, each new poll showing a larger or smaller gender difference evokes a cycle of confusing discussion and speculation as to whether the historical “gender gap” has come to an end (for example: here , here, and here).

In this and other posts, we hope to clarify matters.

Technical Details About Our Data Collection

Please see our separate posting on the Technical Details that guided our data collection.  In addition, at the end of this post, you will find the total number of national polls included in our calculations for this post.

The Overall Standing of the Candidates in National Polls

It is useful to begin with the overall state of the national race, as shown in the graphic immediately below.  The figures will be familiar to poll watchers, revealing four phases in the presidential campaign.  First, during the primary season, characterized by fraternal attacks among Republicans, Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead of four to seven percentage points in polls testing his standing against Romney. After April, the race settled into a stable pattern in which Obama led Romney by a margin of 51/49 until September.  In September, Obama moved into the lead, fueled (we think) by the enthusiasm generated by the Democrats’ convention. In October, the situation reversed, a result (we think) of Obama’s dismal performance in the first Presidential debate on October 3rd.  As of October 24 in our database, the race is essentially tied.

For our purposes, the central question that arises from these trends is whether the shifts and turns during these phases of the horse race are the result of a gender difference.  More specifically, as many have speculated in the press and blog worlds, we might ask: did Obama lose his lead because of a decline in support among women?

Gender Difference in National Polling

The answer is no.

As the graphic below shows, Obama has led among women nationally in every month during 2012, averaging 56.7 percent among women for the entire year (with Romney obviously averaging 43.3 percent).

This gender difference among women for 2012 (Obama leading Romney by +13.1) is exactly the margin that accompanied Obama’s victory in 2008.

Further, to the extent that Obama has a gender problem, it occurs among male voters. The two horizontal lines in the graphic display the percentage among women (top line) and men (bottom line) that Obama won in 2008.  As the lines make clear, he has fared worse among men this year than he did in 2008.  Specifically, Obama is averaging -3.8 percentage points among men for the year compared to 2008. Among women, it is a fairly trivial -.66 percent (55.6 percent in 2012 versus 57 percent in 2008).

Taken as whole, 2012 has been a year in which Obama has lost ground among men –not among women.

But that’s where the good news ends for Obama (to the extent that women provide the margin of victory for Democrats). In October, he lost ground among men and women by the same amount (2 percentage points compared to September). His standing of 46 percent among men and 54 percent among women is the lowest for any time during the year.  More worrisome for Obama supporters, the margin among women of +8 percent nationally  in October has dropped below the level that has provided victory for Democratic candidates in the past (Obama won with +13 points among women in 2008, compared to +11 for Gore in 2000 and +3 for Kerry in 2004). [update 10/30 in answer to reader question. Obama’s lead among RV’s only in October is 10.1%]

In summary, contrary to the speculation that accompanies one or the other poll released almost daily, Obama has a clear lead nationally among women as of October 24.  This lead is smaller than victorious Democratic candidates of the past, however.  And of course the crucial question is whether the same dynamic characterizes current polling in states that are crucial to the Electoral College outcome.

How is Obama faring in the crucial swing states?  What about Ohio? Or, as we shall see: Colorado and Virginia?

We address these questions in subsequent posts in this series.

Summary Statistics for National Polls Reported in this Post

Number of national polls per month

Jan       7

Feb      8

Mar      8

Apr      11

May     6

June     8

July      16

Aug      15

Sept     21

Oct       25

Total    125

Number of polls from following survey organizations (does not include daily tracking polls)

ABC/WP          3


ARG                4

CBS                 2

CBS/NYT        1

CNN/ORC       6

DK/PPP            11


FOX                 11

GRAVIS          1

IBBD/INV       2

MONM                        4

Marist/Mcc       2

PEW                10

POST/ABC      1

PPP                  6

QUINN                        4

YOUGOV        44

Total    125


The photo on our banner

October 28, 2012

You may be wondering about the photo banner.  It pictures Lake Annecy, as seen from the French village of Talloires, which is the home of the Tufts University European Center (where you can study if you are lucky).

Photo credit:  Madeleine Brown Eichenberg (Tufts 2021)

Technical Documentation: Gender Difference in National and State-level Polling on Election 2012

October 28, 2012

Richard C. Eichenberg

Elizabeth Robinson

Tufts University

We have been following and recording gender difference in state and national polling during 2012 and provide a descriptive overview of the data here.

A few words on the contents of the database:  First, we track only polls for which the gender breakdown is available at no cost (this eliminates Rasmussen polls, to choose one example). Second, we track only polls for which the available cross tabulations are reported in a comprehensible fashion that facilitates rapid updating.  Finally, we have excluded national daily tracking polls because they would overwhelm the virtue of variety that comes from including a large number of different polling organizations (the Gallup and Rasmussen daily trackers are therefore excluded)  After the election has passed, we may add these tracking surveys back to the database for research purposes, perhaps choosing one reading per week. These exclusions have no effect on the state-level polls, as there are no state-level trackers –yet.

Does this introduce a “House Bias” into the data collection?

The excluded polling organizations mentioned above have produced results in 2012 that lean more pro-Romney than other organizations, although we have no way of knowing or assuming that this bias is more or less pronounced for gender differences in the polling results.  Nonetheless, their exclusion here might suggest that our collection is slightly more Obama-friendly than it would be were Rasmussen and Gallup (among others) included.

Partisans of both sides should be aware of that.

On the other hand, based on the sophisticated calculations performed by others, house bias is a smaller problem than one might expect when many polls with different drifts are averaged together, as we do here.  Based on the calculated “house bias” reported by Jackman and by Linzer,  our collection includes a number of polling organizations that lean pro-Obama by about 1 percentage point or slightly more, but it also includes organizations that lean slightly pro-Romney by about the same amount . Finally, the collection includes a large number of polls from organizations whose house bias is close to zero.

A fair guess –and it is only a guess—is that the average house bias in our collection leans only very slightly toward Obama, perhaps half a percentage point.  In fact, it may be less.  As we note below, we estimate the Obama/Romney percentage of the national electorate as of October 24th at exactly 50/50.  On this date, this is precisely the percentage estimated by the Huffpost’s pollster.com.  Also on this date, the NYT’s Nate Silver estimated a snapshot of the race at 50/49 (Obama/Romney).  In subsequent posts, we will also report the race in important states such as Colorado and Virginia at almost exactly 50/50 as of Oct 24th, which is also the precise number estimated by the professional poll aggregating sites.

Given how close our averages come to the averages yielded in professional model estimates, we have high confidence that our estimates are near the mark.  We will find out –and report– on election day.

Voter Base

The results reported here include likely voters and registered voters in survey samples.  We include registered voters because it allows us to extend the comparison back to January, when few polls had yet included likely voter screens.  As the year progresses, however, far and away the largest number of polls are based on likely voters only.  Specifically, for the entire year of 2012, 55 percent of our polls are Likely Voters.  After July, however, this increases to 84 percent Likely Voters, and it increases to 87 percent Likely Voters during October.

Polling Organizations Represented in the Database and Number of Polls for Each

ARG 21
FOX 19
Marist/Mcc 2
NBC/Marist 15
NBC/WSJ/Marist 38
NY1/YNN-Marist 2
PEW 10
PPP 120
STRAT360 1
UNH 10
WP 2
Total 557





Scholarly References on Gender Politics in the United States

October 28, 2012

Some of these references require access to electronic journals, usually through a University library.  Or you could do it the old-fashioned way, which is to walk into a university library or public library in a major city and read the article in the print journals section.

Chaney, Carole Kennedy, R. Michael Alvarez, and Jonathan Nagler. 1998. “Explaining the Gender Gap in US Presidential Elections, 1980-1992.” Political Research Quarterly, Vol 51, (June), 311-340.

Crowder-Meyer, Melody, “Gender Differences in Policy Preferences and Priorities,” Paper Presented to the Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2007.

Eichenberg, Richard, “Gender Differences in Attitudes Toward the Use of Force by the United States, 1990-2003″ International Security, 28/1 (Summer 2003), 110-141.

Iversen, Torben and Frances Rosenbluth ,”The Political Economy of Gender: Explaining Cross-National Variation in the Gender Division of Labor and the Gender Voting Gap,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 50, No. 1, January 2006, Pp. 1–19.

Kaufman, Karen M., and John R. Petrocik. 1999. “The Changing Politics of American Men:  Understanding the Sources of the Gender Gap.” American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 43.  No. 3 (July). 864-887.

Shapiro, Robert and Harpreet Mahajan. 1986. “Gender Differences in Policy Preferences:  A Summary of Trends from the 1960s to the 1980s.” Public Opinion Quarterly. Vol. 50. No. 1 (Spring). 42-61.

Silver, Nate, “‘Gender Gap’ Near Historic Highs,” New York Times, October 21, 2012.

Wolbrecht, Christina, “Parties and the Gender Gap,”  in: Mischiefs of Faction, October 25, 2012.