“Since we concluded these negotiations, we have had the most consequential national security debate since the decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago. Over the last several weeks, the more members studied the details of this deal, the more they came out in support. Today, I am heartened that so many senators judged this deal on the merits, and am gratified by the strong support of lawmakers and citizens alike.”
— President Obama, statement on Senate vote on Iran deal, Sept. 10, 2015
Earlier this month, the Senate handed a victory to Obama when Senate Democrats blocked a final vote on a resolution of disapproval concerning the international agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.
Under the rules of the Senate, opponents needed 60 votes to end debate, but they could muster only 58; 42 Democrats joined together to oppose ending debate. Nevertheless, that meant 58 senators signaled they would vote against the Iran deal.
A reader questioned the language in the president’s statement about the “strong support” by lawmakers and citizens that the president claimed for the deal.
The statement is carefully crafted. The president refers to senators studying the details of the deal and coming out in support, as opposed to reflexive opposition. For many weeks, the key question in Washington was whether Obama would win enough support to sustain a veto of the resolution, so the fact that he secured enough votes to block a final vote was a bit of a surprise.
Still, what is the evidence that there was “strong support of lawmakers and citizens?”
On the face of it, support by 42 members of the Senate out of 100 indicates minority support. When the Senate blocked a final vote on enhanced background checks for gun purchases with a vote of 54 to 46, the president made a statement decrying the actions of a “minority”:
“A majority of senators voted ‘yes’ to protecting more of our citizens with smarter background checks. But by this continuing distortion of Senate rules, a minority was able to block it from moving forward.”
Still, the president’s statement, as framed, appears to suggest the “strong support” refers to the number of Democrats in the Senate who decided to support the deal in the final days, thus thwarting an actual vote on the resolution. But does the same hold true for U.S. citizens?
Obviously, various polls indicated a range of opinions on the Iran deal, and our colleague Scott Clement noted that the polling results often depended on the types of questions asked, with some polls offering simple yes-or-no questions and others describing the deal in detail before asking the question.
So because the president appears to be claiming strong support based on the surge of support by lawmakers at the end of the process, let’s see what happened to public support as the debate unfolded. We’ve focused on reputable polls that asked the same question at least twice over the summer so that we could get a feel for the trend line.
45 percent say senator should support Iran deal
27 percent say senator should oppose Iran deal
37 percent want senator to support the deal
34 percent want senator to oppose the deal
23 percent want senator to support the deal
43 percent want senator to oppose the deal
NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll
35 percent of Americans support the Iran deal (down from 36 percent in June)
33 percent of Americans oppose the Iran deal (up from 17 percent in June)
36.4 percent of Americans support the agreement reached in exchange for lifting sanctions
26.6 percent oppose this agreement
29.4 percent of Americans support the agreement reached in exchange for lifting sanctions
29.3 percent oppose this agreement
44 percent approve
52 percent reject
41 percent approve
56 percent reject
Pew Research Center Poll
33 percent approve
45 percent disapprove
21 percent approve,
49 percent disapprove
As you can see, support for the agreement consistently dropped over the summer, even as the White House was picking up enough votes from Democratic lawmakers to thwart a resolution nullifying the agreement. In large part, the shift is because the debate became hyper-partisan. As Republican lawmakers unified in opposition, sentiment among Republican voters also turned against the deal.
But the polls also reflect declining support among Democrats. By the beginning of September, there was barely a poll that, outside the margin of error, indicated majority support for the deal, let alone “strong” support.
One interesting exception was a survey, conducted Aug. 17-20, by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, which found that Americans narrowly supported the deal, with 55 percent wanting Congress to approve it and 44 percent wanting the pact to be rejected.
This was an unusual survey, in which respondents were given a briefing on the issue that included the main arguments for and against the agreement. This gives some credence to the White House suggestion that people who studied the agreement in depth tended to support it. But the survey also found sharply partisan attitudes, with Republican support plunging from previous surveys.
White House officials declined to provide an on-the-record response.
Update: We had not originally included The Washington Post-ABC News poll because we did not have more than one data point. But on Sept. 16, a new poll was released that found a bare majority in support, but continued erosion, especially among Republicans, over the summer. Support fell even further than an alternative question, with less detail, was asked.
Washington Post-ABC News poll
56 percent support
37 percent oppose
51 percent support
41 percent oppose
The Pinocchio Test
Any way you slice it, it is difficult to support the claim that there is “strong support” for the Iran deal among lawmakers and citizens. This is clearly a case of winning ugly, in the face of minority support among lawmakers and increasing opposition among American citizens.
The White House certainly did better than many analysts expected, since enough Democrats supported the agreement to prevent a final Senate vote on the merits. And Obama avoided a veto fight. But that’s different than having “strong support” for the deal.
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