The Iranian People Speak

By Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty

Monday, June 15, 2009

The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin — greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election.

While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad’s principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.

Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, preelection polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy. By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years. Conducted by telephone from a neighboring country, field work was carried out in Farsi by a polling company whose work in the region for ABC News and the BBC has received an Emmy award. Our polling was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The breadth of Ahmadinejad’s support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

Some might argue that the professed support for Ahmadinejad we found simply reflected fearful respondents’ reluctance to provide honest answers to pollsters. Yet the integrity of our results is confirmed by the politically risky responses Iranians were willing to give to a host of questions. For instance, nearly four in five Iranians — including most Ahmadinejad supporters — said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran’s supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities for their government, virtually tied with improving the national economy. These were hardly "politically correct" responses to voice publicly in a largely authoritarian society.

Indeed, and consistently among all three of our surveys over the past two years, more than 70 percent of Iranians also expressed support for providing full access to weapons inspectors and a guarantee that Iran will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, in return for outside aid and investment. And 77 percent of Iranians favored normal relations and trade with the United States, another result consistent with our previous findings.

Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal — rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.

Allegations of fraud and electoral manipulation will serve to further isolate Iran and are likely to increase its belligerence and intransigence against the outside world. Before other countries, including the United States, jump to the conclusion that the Iranian presidential elections were fraudulent, with the grave consequences such charges could bring, they should consider all independent information. The fact may simply be that the reelection of President Ahmadinejad is what the Iranian people wanted.

Ken Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, a nonprofit institute that researches attitudes toward extremism. Patrick Doherty is deputy director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. The groups’ May 11-20 polling consisted of 1,001 interviews across Iran and had a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.

For more on polling in Iran, read Jon Cohen’s Behind the Numbers.

5 replies
  1. ToddA
    ToddA says:

    I’ve heard this poll criticized as being taken too early to capture the movement of the electorate in this instance. The Iranian elections run on a very compressed cycle and this poll was taken at a very early stage. Compared the the US system, it could be said this poll was run in early January before the November election. If the criticism is valid, then your poll does not reflect the preferences of the electorate at the time of the election, but at an earlier date.

    How do you respond?

  2. TMO
    TMO says:

    TMO is not responsible for Iranian government policies or actions. We just wanted to publish a range of views about the election–and in this case there is clearly another side that is not generally spoken about in the American mainstream news. On the other hand there were irregularities in the way the election was conducted. It appears Mousavi should have won among his own Azeri people.
    As to your claim, that seems pretty ridiculous since January and November are 10 months apart, and this scientific poll was taken two months before the election–or rather, immediately before the election.
    Some have made much of the 40 million votes counted by the close of polls but this is not clear evidence. One person counting ballots by hand should be able to count two per minute, which would be 120 per hour, so he/she should be able to count 1,000 in a day. If Iran has 1,000 people counting they should be able to count 1,000,000 in a day. Iran claimed to have counted 20% or about 8 million by the end of the day which sounds completely reasonable if they had 8,000 people counting–completely reasonable–almost certainly Iran would have had to have tens of thousands of people involved in the logistics of running their election.
    TMO does not have any interest either way in the Iranian election–but it appears to us that many in the United States have adopted a knee-jerk anti-Muslim response to the election; and have assumed as a foregone conclusion that the election was rigged–unfairly leaving the Iranian government with the burden of proving that it was not rigged. And this we ascribe more to hatred of Muslims and of Islam rather than to any particular interest in election fairness.
    It seems logical that especially in the more Westernized areas of Iran there would be more pro-Western and therefore likely anti-Ahmadinejad feeling, but in many parts of Iran, where the majority of its people live, there would be more traditional and religious sentiment that might work to his favor. It seems to us a very real possibility that Ahmadinejad did win fairly, or could have won fairly. And all we want is for people to not assume from the outset that the election was unfair, without at least showing evidence of that.
    That said, it is a different question whether Ahmadinejad is good for Iran, or good for Muslims outside of Iran. But one thing that we feel is bad for Muslims everywhere is when non-Muslims ascribe guilt in a reactionary and mindless way against Muslims, on the basis of mere rumors and assumptions.

  3. ToddA
    ToddA says:

    The claim isn’t actually ridiculous (and is not mine). It makes good sense. The election campaign in Iran is a much shorter affair than American campaigns. Massive amounts of information came to the electorate in a very short period of time. It’s entirely possible that minds were changed, and that people’s willingness to express opinions different than support for the party in power increased, over the weeks between the time this poll was taken and the election held.

    I do appreciate the availability of this information and the opportunity it provides for discussion.

    I’m puzzled as to why you think the reaction to the election is somehow anti-Muslim. If the election was stolen, it was stolen by Muslims from Muslims. It would be no different than western reaction to the election stolen in Ukraine in 2004 (by Christians from Christians). It is also no different from the western reaction to the election stolen in 1990 in Burma (by Buddhists from Buddhists).

    If I think that the election in Iran was stolen (and I am not convinced of that at all), it would not occur to me to think it had anything to do with the religion of the perpetrators. It would be a political and military question. Granted, the leadership in Iran goes to great lengths to show itself as driven by its religion, but it’s become clear that the government of Iran is much less about religion than it is about garden-variety authoritarian military power, much as was the regime it toppled in 1979.

    Yes, it’s entirely possible that Ahmadinejad did receive a majority of the votes cast. It’s a rather large stretch beyond that to call his election fair, as the media were still largely controlled by the state, he was given air time that was denied to opposing candidates, and many candidates were not even allowed to run by the authorities.

  4. TMO
    TMO says:

    will not argue with you about this, and even we are allowing your post to show on the site.

    a quick response: (1) We hope that on its face it is ridiculous to state that 11 months in the USA is equal to 2 months in Iran. (2) if you care so much about elections whether or not Muslim regimes are implicated why don’t you go fight for Congolese or Rwandan or Zimbabwean or Chinese electoral rights, or Egyptian rights, or the rights of Palestinians to vote. We are not saying the Iranian regime has run a “fair” election–there are many mechanisms in place in Iran that are designed to control the outcome, just as in the United States elections are controlled so that only people from a select group can actually be elected. You can argue that Barack Obama is outside of the group–but in fact if he had said certain things he would have been excluded from consideration. If he had been Muslim he would not have been elected. In fact, if he had not been Christian he would not have been elected. If he had not vowed support for Israel he would not have been elected. He also has to win approval and support from those in power in Washington before he can rise to prominence and position. In fact even at the Senate level many of these same restrictions apply, at least as normative influences if not absolute rules (as they are at the presidential level). There is not true democracy in the United States, or in Iran, or in Israel. True democracy in fact is never implemented–there are always controls in place. And in any political system those who are powerful (even if they are not known) will certainly move to protect their interests. (3) anti-Muslim sentiment is at the heart of the groundswell of support in the USA for the “green revolution.” People here fear an avowedly Islamic regime (and it never occurs to them that perhaps it is not truly Islamic). They will not say openly that they support the “green revolution” because they wish to subvert Islamic institutions, but we have seen over and over again that they have an emotional reaction to Islam, either (liberals) when they feel their values of personal autonomy are threatened or (conservatives) when their religious values are challenged (even implicitly). And so they portray the caricature that is Islam to them–people committing atrocities “for 70 virgins” or people beating women or whatever. Men in turbans making decisions of a national nature are horrifying to them, in and of themselves.
    As Muslims you have to forgive us for suspecting the motives of people who are both eager and motivated when an avowedly Islamic regime is seemingly threatened from within.
    “Argument darkens the heart,” so we do not want to respond further. Your comments on their face may be sincere, so we have published them although we disagree, but we really do not want to engage in a full argument with you. good luck to you.