April 4, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Popping the Question

Throughout these posts I've tried to highlight the critical impact of question wording on polling results, and how specific wording can influence responses.  For this reason, I want to highlight Paul Pillar's blog post this week on The National Interest, “False Choices on Iran,” which focuses on survey question wording about American attitudes toward how to react to Iran's nuclear program. He refers to a March 2013 survey by Pew Research that asked Americans whether it is “more important” to “prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action” or to “avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.” Worded this way, 64 percent select the first choice and 25 percent choose the second. Pillar points out several problems with the question wording, including the double-barreled argument that conflates the decision to take military action with concern about Iran developing nuclear weapons. Take a look at his full analysis linked above.

When presented with a broader range of options, several survey organizations have found that Americans are willing to take measures to counter the nuclear threat in Iran, but they stop short of supporting military strikes. The 2012 Chicago Council survey found that the most preferred approaches to ending this threat are currently being pursued: imposing tighter economic sanctions (80%) and continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium (79%). While a substantial minority (45%) support UN authorization of a military strike against Iran's nuclear energy facilities, a majority of Americans oppose such a strike. Additionally, a clear majority (70%) opposes a unilateral strike by the US without UN authorization if Iran continues to enrich uranium.

ABC News/Washington Post polling from 2012 found similar percentages supporting direct diplomatic talks between the US and Iran (81%), increasing international economic sanctions against Iran (74%) and the US bombing Iran's nuclear development sites (41%) to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This same poll found that two in three Americans also believe that it is a "better idea to see first if economic sanctions against Iran work, even if that allows more time for its nuclear program to progress" (64% versus 26% who say "it is a better idea to attack Iran soon, before its nuclear program progresses any further, even if that means not waiting to see if economic sanctions work").

CNN/ORC surveys from 2006-2012 have found at least six in ten who consistently say that economic and diplomatic efforts are a better approach than military action. Most recently in February 2012, a majority say that in order to get Iran to shut down its nuclear program, the US should use economic and diplomatic efforts but not take military action against Iran now (60%), compared to 17 percent who think the US should take military action now and 22 percent who prefer not to take action against Iran at this time.

See page 29 in “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium” for more Chicago Council Survey questions on Iran, including public perceptions of Iran's nuclear ambitions.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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