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What does the American public really think of the Iran deal?

President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In the least surprising development ever, today’s Quinnipiac poll finding a majority against the Iran deal generated a whole bunch of twitter traffic from political commentator types.

But a new NBC News poll also came out today, and thus far (also shockingly) it’s getting less attention: It finds 35 percent of Americans support the deal; 33 percent are against it; and 32 percent are undecided.

What’s significant here is that, unlike many other polls, the NBC poll offered respondents the choice of saying they are not informed enough to have an opinion. The good folks at NBC sent over the question wording:

As you may know, an agreement has been reached between Iran and a group of six other nations, including the U.S. The agreement attempts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon by limiting Iran’s ability to produce nuclear material and allowing inspections into Iran’s nuclear sites in exchange for reducing certain economic sanctions that are currently in place. Do you support or oppose this agreement or do you not know enough to have an opinion?
Support: 35
Oppose: 33
Don’t know enough: 32

Foes would likely argue this wording is too generous, and that more would oppose the deal if the question informed respondents of, say, the possibility that the lifting of sanctions could mean more Iranian funding for terrorism. This is a counterfactual; and anyway, the degree to which sanctions relief would result in more terror funding is itself in dispute. Beyond that, the wording does seem like a fairly neutral description of the deal’s fundamental tradeoff — eased sanctions in exchange for more access to Iran’s nuclear sites — and that garners as much support as opposition. But it’s possible the results would be more negative if more detail were included. We just don’t know either way.

The more interesting point, to me, is that few, if any, other polls offered a third choice — don’t know enough — and that may be having an impact on the polling.

The Quinnipiac poll asks simply: “Do you support or oppose the nuclear deal with Iran?” The deal isn’t described; and there’s no third option. Recent surveys from Pew and from CNN also did not describe the deal (the CNN poll was a tad more descriptive, but not much) and the questions didn’t offer a third option, and like the Quinnipiac poll, both of them showed more opposition than support.

By contrast, recent polls from the Washington Post and YouGov both described the deal, and both found more support the deal than oppose it.

Critics of the deal say the wording in those surveys, too, is overly generous. That may be. In fact, if that is true, it would perhaps support what I’m going to say next.

I think the most reasonable takeaway from the totality of the polling is that a very large percentage of Americans doesn’t know much about the Iran deal. Thus, in the polls that don’t describe it and only offer a binary choice, the answers reflect dislike of Iran. By contrast, the polls that hint at the possibility of actual success in limiting Iran’s nuclear program — and only offer a binary choice — register more public support. In the first batch, people are saying, “we distrust Iran.” In the second batch, people are choosing “the thing that seems to make a nuclear Iran less likely.”

And the poll (NBC) that describes the deal in somewhat neutral terms but also allows people to admit to not knowing enough about it get a breakdown roughly in thirds — largely along partisan lines.

Some have argued that even if the polls differ from one another, they clearly do show a trend towards disapproval of the Iran deal. That may be, and if so, it would be consistent with the idea that many have not formed firm opinions (but are now beginning to). In this sense, this interpretation could lend some solace to opponents: they have a chance to turn the public against the deal in August, and the polling would seem to signal more energy on the side of opponents.

On the other hand, getting two-thirds of both chambers to override Obama’s veto would probably require a tremendous public backlash, since at bottom, most Congressional Dems are likely to be reluctant to sink Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. And feelings may not be running all that strongly on this issue among much of the American mainstream. Indeed, they probably aren’t, if it’s true that many Americans are not that tuned in to the details, as the new NBC poll suggests.

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