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.

iranmil12

 

 

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.”

youguv_May2015

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).

Graph

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

 

Reference

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.


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.

 Caveats

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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)