On Tuesday, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent penned a piece headlined, "What the GOP presidential candidates could say about the Iran deal, but won’t." While there's perhaps some food for thought in the column, this paragraph stopped me cold:
Rubio’s suggestion that a “majority of the American people” opposes the Iran deal is interesting; this week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 56 percent of them support the deal. Rubio is right in the sense that a majority of Congress almost certainly does not support the agreement — Congress could fail to block it even as majorities in both chambers vote against it. But if anything, that just means Congress is probably to the right of the American people on it.
I don't mean to pick on Sargent here, because what's going on here is something a lot Beltway pundits do (and I'm sure you could find examples of this in my more youthful adventures in journalism). But having said that, let's be clear: Citing polling data on something as complex as the Iran deal is a pointless exercise in confirmation bias. The average American has no idea how something as complex as the Iran deal works. A great many journalists pretending to understand it don't know how the deal was structured. Heck, I'm not even sure the people in the White House and State Department who negotiated the deal know exactly what they've done.
When it comes to nuclear security, I am not interested in the opinions of people who both don't know -- and shouldn't be expected to know! -- the details of something this complex, much less have an informed opinion on whether or not this deal will be successful at halting the nuclear ambitions of an eschatological theocracy. With that in mind, let's take a look at the question that was asked in the Washington Post poll:
Q: The U.S. and other countries have announced a deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons. International inspectors would monitor Iran’s facilities, and if Iran is caught breaking the agreement economic sanctions would be imposed again. Do you support or oppose this agreement?
When you consider the likelihood that the information contained in that loaded question is all a significant percentage of poll respondents know about the deal, it's surprising that support for the deal was only 56 percent. If poll respondents knew that the deal was freeing up billions in frozen Iranian assets that will almost certainly be used to fund terrorism, support would probably drop. Support would further drop if they were told the deal also lifts unrelated arms embargoes. And what if poll respondents were told the White House is deliberately trying to bypass getting Congressional approval because there's bipartisa opposition, and yet they made the deal contingent on Iran's legislative body? What if pollsters mentioned that Iran will receive advance notice of 24 days before any nuclear inspections are done, and many experts think that will allow them to hide evidence of their nuclear program?
You could make lots of pro or con arguments about the various technical aspects of the deal, but pretending understandably ignorant voters are capable of making a judgment about whether this deal is sound is pernicious nonsense. And there's no way such myopic polling data should be be a part of the calculus used to determine the course of action on such an important issue.
This is a good lesson to keep in mind because as the presidential election heats up, there's going to be a lot of issue-oriented polling data thrown around. While politicians shouldn't dismiss voters, pretending they have expert opinions on the regrettably and needlessly complex policy issues that undergird every debate is rarely helpful.