With the Iranian election still disputed, some support for President Ahmadinejad has come from what seems to be the only solid poll during the campaign. Iranian election polls are notoriously dodgy – there is a list of those that emerged during the campaign on this wikipedia page, they show wildly contrasting figures, report only partial results, cover only major cities (or often only Tehran itself), or have sample sizes that suggest they are straw polls, not controlled samples. It’s not a particular surprise, given that opinion pollsters in Iran have an unfortunate history of ending up in prison.

One poll that does seem to have a solid methodological basis is this one by Terror Free Tomorrow, a US non-for-profit company. Amongst those expressing a voting intention this showed Ahmadinejad on 67%, Moussavi on 27%, Karroubi on 4% and Rezai on 1%. The actual results were Ahmadinejad 63%, Moussavi 34%, Rezai 2% and Karroubi 1%.

The authors, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, wrote an article in the Washington Post yesterday saying that, despite what seems to be the Western media’s keeness to assume that the election was fixed and Ahmadinejad couldn’t possibly have won fairly, their poll suggests that the Iranian public did support Ahmadinejad, and the result is likely to be genuine.

This itself has caused much debate – including Gary Langer here, Mark Blumenthal here and Nate Silver here.

So, does the poll show that Ahmadinejad really won after all? Well, the poll itself looks entirely trustworthy. It was a random telephone poll, conducted in Farsi but from outside Iran for the safety of the interviewers, sampling was using random digits on randomly chosen telephone exchanges. There was a good response rate – of 2,364 contact attempts, 42% resulted in interviews (non-contact was 26% and response rate 58%) and the sample was weighted by province, rural/urban, age and gender.

Obviously a phone poll is going to exclude people without a telephone (though phone penetration in Iran is pretty high – even the worst provinces have a penetration above 75%) and the proportion of respondents who classed themselves as middle class seems far too high. However, both these skews would likely favour reformists, not President Ahmadinejad, so if anything it should have underestimated his lead.

Criticism of the poll has largely focused upon the high level of don’t knows and refusals. The figures I gave above exclude these, but in the original sample 27% said don’t know and 15% refused to answer. These don’t seem as outlandishly high as some people have suggested – while it was only three or so weeks out from the election, it was only a couple of days after the main contender had announced his candidacy and before the final candidate list was announced.

That said, people have rightly pondered whether this big chunk of “don’t knows” and refusals were “shy reformers”. Might these figures be people in a police state who didn’t want to admit to a total stranger over the phone they might vote for reformers? We don’t have full cross breaks for the poll, but the authors indicate that the don’t knows were disproportionately (60% to 40%) reformers. If they broke 60-40 in favour of Moussavi the result would certainly be closer, but Ahmadinejad would still be comfortably ahead.

There’s also some comment that the rest of the answers don’t show a populace particularly enamoured by a hardline Conservative President. 60% for example, supported unconditional talks with the USA, 77% favoured normal trade, and 89% supported peaceful US help with nuclear power. 84% supported a free press and 77% think the Supreme Leader should be elected.

However, the Iranian public also expressed some views very much in line with those of President Ahmadinejad. 62% opposed any peace deal with Israel and favoured “all Muslims fighting until there is no State of Israel”, 32% had a negative opinion of Jews. The two biggest threats to Iran were almost universally seen as Israel and the US. 46% thought Ahmadinejad’s policies had succeeded in reducing unemployment and inflation.

My problem with the poll isn’t anything to do with those don’t knows or Iranian people’s policy views – it’s the fieldwork dates, May 11th to May 20th. It took place over three weeks before the election. International coverage of the campaign was suggesting a walkover until the last week or two, when the Moussavi campaign was suddenly being reported as coming to life.

In other words, this poll strongly suggests that had the Iranian election been held on the 20th May, President Ahmadinejad would have won in a landslide. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Iranian public opinion didn’t shift away from him in the three weeks between then and polling day. Equally, it gives no particular reason to think it did – it’s just too early to tell us, though frankly it would be one mighty turnaround and on the balance of probabilities, one has to conclude that the polling evidence (I make no claim on anything else) is in favour of Ahmadinejad genuinely having topped the poll.

That said, it’s also worth echoing a point Nate Silver made: if people were scared to tell a pollster their real intentions, they might well also have been scared to vote that way, so even if polling figures match results, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it was a free and fair election. There’s more to real democracy than just counting the papers correctly.

7 Responses to “What did the Iranian polls say?”

  1. I don’t thnk that this poll tells us anything useful about the actual election for the reasons Anthony gives. A better guide is the obviously pre-planned clampdown on internal and external communication as soon as the polls closed, the refusal to allow opposition observers at the count and the very early announcement of results.

    There is an interesting pair of screenshots from Iranian state TV on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_presidential_election,_2009

    showing a decrease in votes for one of the candidates over a four hour period. He apparently dropped 46,000 votes between the two screenshots. This may have been a technical glitch of course.

  2. I’m in no way an expert on Iran but I did spend a bit of time there as a student. My impression was that a cosmopolitan somewhat Westernised minority, mostly wealthy and urban, coexists with a very large, very conservative majority very likely to support someone like Ahmadinejad over a reformist.. Most things I’ve read since seem to confirm that impression so I’m not at all surprised by this result.

    But as Anthony say, Iran is so far from having a “free and fair democracy” to begin with. It doesn’t have a free press. Candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council or they can’t stand for election. Political intimidation is rife and it’s very feasible that a proportion of voters fear the police will come calling if they support the “wrong” candidate.

  3. whether or not Ahmadinejad might have actually won is kinda mute. It is the scale of his victory and the fact that he apparently won in places like Tehran and Mousavi’s home town that make the scale of his supposed victory lacking in credibility.

    I also do not believe that opinion polls are remotely trustworthy in a police state such as this. I am sure that this was conducted to high professional standards but if you were an iranian and a stranger rang you one evening asking you how you planned to vote, what would you say?

  4. I got the impression myself that the election wasn’t necessarily that rigged, it’s just the more westernized cities getting more and more separated from the conservative majority and taking advantage of the western media by default taking the side of whoever isn’t the beardy guy whose name temporarily escapes me. They probably both have beards but ya know who I mean. Sheesh that’s bad grammar, I need a translator…

  5. Interesting to see a valid (sort of) poll ; useful to have something like facts from the region in the public arena.

  6. The people who do these opinion tests don understand Iranian people psychologies. They say Ahmadinejad on telephone because they are afraid to tell they vote Mousavi. So please dont be stupid and think Ahmadinejad win, hes stoled the votes of peoples. it is a biggest ever lie this election.