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Why Americans Might Be Convinced To Support A War With Iran

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After an attack on a Saudi oil facility last Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swiftly pointed the finger at Iran, and on Sunday Trump tweeted that the U.S. was “locked and loaded.” Although administration officials denied that Trump’s tweet referred to an impending U.S. military strike against Iran, the rhetoric from the White House has nevertheless made the possibility of an armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran — which about half of Americans expect “within the next few years,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in May — seem more likely than before.

And a SurveyMonkey poll by Business Insider conducted earlier this week found that only 13 percent of Americans support a U.S. military response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities. The poll, which didn’t mention Iran specifically, also found that about half of Americans felt the U.S. should either remove itself entirely from the situation or limit its response to condemning the attack and possibly sanctioning the perpetrators.

But while the SurveyMonkey poll suggests there’s little public appetite for U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s response to the attack, a survey conducted in June found that the use of military force in Iran may be one military intervention that the U.S. public could get behind, especially if Americans perceive Iran’s nuclear capabilities as a threat. In that survey, which was released earlier this month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 70 percent of respondents, including 82 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats, supported using U.S. troops to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And as you can see in the chart below, there’s a lot more support for sending troops to Iran than to other parts of the world, including Iraq, Syria and China.

I spoke with Dina Smeltz, the lead author of the survey and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, about why Amercians seem more willing to commit U.S. troops to stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons than to other causes. “If Americans perceive a threat to our own country or to an ally, they are willing to support the use of force,” Smeltz said. “But if they see it as an internal matter abroad [or] not a direct threat to the United States, they are more reluctant.”

And it’s entirely possible that Americans perceive the attack on Saudi oil facilities as an issue that doesn’t directly endanger the U.S., but believe that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are a threat. Iran has denied that it was behind the attack, but that’s not the only recent sign of aggression. Iran has been taking steps to upgrade its nuclear infrastructure, publicly violating the 2015 nuclear deal that the U.S. helped negotiate and then abandoned in 2018, and Americans may perceive Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities as a threat. Additionally, Smeltz told me that if the Trump administration portrays the Saudi attack as a direct threat to the United States, it could help shore up support for a military approach.

But while the Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll might seem to indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans are ready to go to war over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it did find that support dropped when specific types of military interventions were proposed: In response to a question that asked respondents what strategies they’d favor if Iran withdrew from the nuclear deal altogether, 51 percent said they’d support conducting cyberattacks against Iran’s computer systems, 48 percent said they’d support airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and 40 percent said they’d support sending troops to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities — all significantly lower than the 70 percent that said they supported sending U.S. troops to Iran to stop them from obtaining nuclear weapons.

And there’s another reason to think that this poll may have overstated overall support for military intervention in Iran: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked about Iran in the context of other military conflicts, whereas a July poll from Fox News asked about military intervention only in Iran. The Fox News poll found that far fewer Americans — 53 percent — favored military action to stop the development of nuclear weapons. When asked about the discrepancy, Smeltz said the true answer is “probably something in between the two.” She added, however, that regardless of whether the real number is closer to 40, 50 or 70 percent, messaging from the White House or the media characterizing Iran as a threat could drive up support for military intervention, especially if “a big chunk of the population is already willing to support the use of force.”

At this stage at least, Americans still prefer a non-military approach to Iran: According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll, 81 percent of Americans said they either “somewhat” or “strongly” support continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium if the country withdraws from the nuclear deal, and 78 percent said they somewhat or strongly support tighter economic sanctions. A Gallup poll conducted in July also found that a majority of Americans preferred that the U.S. rely on economic and diplomatic efforts rather than military action — although 42 percent told Gallup that the U.S. should take military action if diplomatic and economic measures fail.

For now, the administration seems to have decided against immediate military action, and on Wednesday, Trump announced tighter economic sanctions on Iran in response to the attack. But Trump has not entirely ruled out using military force, and if he were to exercise a military option against Iran, the polling we have so far seems to indicate that it may not be very popular — but that could change if the administration can convince the public that Iran’s actions are a threat to the United States.

Other polling bites:

  • 57 percent of Americans view segregation in schools as a “very” or “moderately serious” problem, according to a Gallup poll released this week. Of the four policy proposals Gallup offered as methods of reducing school segregation, the most popular option was establishing more regional magnet schools (79 percent of respondents said they were in favor). The least popular option, with 43 percent in favor, was requiring districts to bus students to neighboring schools to increase schools’ racial diversity, a policy that became a flash point in the first Democratic debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden.
  • YouGov and FairVote teamed up to simulate the Democratic primary under a ranked-choice voting system. The system asked voters to rank the candidates by preference (with the ability to rank 10 of 20 candidates or just the five candidates with the highest polling averages). The candidate with the fewest votes was then eliminated and his or her votes redistributed to each voter’s next choice. This process is repeated until one winner remained. In the first-round tally of the five-candidate version of this poll, former Vice President Joe Biden led Sen. Elizabeth Warren 33 percent to 29 percent, but after eliminating and redistributing according to ranked choice, Warren led Biden 53 percent to 47 percent. Unfortunately for the Warren campaign, that’s not how the Democratic primary works.
  • Following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in August, the National Rifle Association’s popularity has taken a hit: Less than 50 percent of Americans say they have a favorable opinion of the organization, according to a Gallup poll. This is only the second time in the last 30 years that the NRA has been this unpopular. However, much of its current unpopularity is due to Democrats and independents turning against the organization, not a shift among Republicans, who largely hold positive views of the organization (87 percent had a favorable opinion).
  • In the week following the third Democratic debate, Warren seems to be continuing her steady rise in the polls, though Biden maintains the lead. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed Warren increased support from 19 percent in July to 25 percent. That’s in line with other initial post-debate polls as well, including the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll and Morning Consult poll, which both found modest gains for Warren since the debate.
  • Afghanistan’s national elections will take place on Sept. 28, five months after their original April date. According to a July 2018 Gallup poll, only 19 percent of Afghans are confident in the honesty of their elections, the lowest among the countries that Gallup polled in South Asia. In that same poll, 91 percent of respondents said corruption is widespread in the Afghan government.
  • According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, roughly 7 in 10 teenagers said the effects of climate change will cause “a moderate or great deal of harm” to people in their generation, which is slightly higher than the percentage of those 30 or older who said the same. What’s more, 24 percent of teenagers have engaged in climate change activism, either attending a climate change rally, contacting a public official or participating in a school walkout to raise climate change awareness, which The Washington Post described as “a remarkable level of activism for a group that has not yet reached voting age.”
  • The long-anticipated storming of Area 51 — a Facebook event in which 2.1 million users indicated they planned to raid a highly classified military base looking for aliens — is today. A Gallup poll from earlier this month reveals that a third of U.S. adults believe that prior UFO sightings have actually been alien spaceships. Another 16 percent say they have seen something they thought was a UFO. To boot, 68 percent of Americans believe the government is withholding information about UFOs — so I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the raid finds.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.1 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.6 points). At this time last week, 41.6 percent approved and 53.7 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.1 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.5 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.8 percentage points (46.8 percent to 40.0 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.6 points (46.4 percent to 39.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.3 points (46.2 percent to 39.9 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

CORRECTION (Sept. 20, 2019, 12:20 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

Maddie Sach is a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight. She studies Quantitative Social Science at Dartmouth.

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