Iranian Public Opinion Polling and Rouhani’s Electoral Victory

Last Wednesday, University of Tehran lecturer and University of Maryland doctoral candidate Ebrahim Mohseni presented the results of a series of polls taken before and after the Iranian presidential election of June 14 at the New America Foundation, in a panel moderated by Shibley Telhami, a Saban Center nonresident senior fellow.  Among the highlights of the presentation – 

which can be viewed in full

– was data indicating extremely late-breaking momentum for Hassan Rouhani, who only surpassed Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf in the polls the day before the election.  Mohseni noted that 20% of Rouhani voters polled said they made their decision on the final day of the election, albeit for a multitude of different reasons.  Economic concerns also overwhelmingly topped the list of respondent’s priorities for the new president, as voters wanted better domestic management and progress against international sanctions.

Afterward, Mohseni agreed to answer a few of our questions about Iranian public opinion and the reasons behind Rouhani’s victory. We also discussed the controversy the polling partnership of the University of Tehran and PIPA had garnered in 2009 when, contrary to many analysts’ assertions that the official results of that year’s election were fraudulent (see, for example,

Ali Ansari et al. for Chatham House

), it found robust support in public opinion data for Ahmadinejad’s re-election, prompting some to

question the pollsters’ accuracy

.  Mohseni defended these poll results.  Our interview is below.

Mr. Mohseni, you report that the increasing support for Hassan Rouhani picked up so much momentum in the final days of the campaign that on June 13, there was a substantial increase in his poll results even between the morning and the evening.  How do you explain such sudden and dynamic shifts in the election? 

Many factors were in play. I would start with the third debate, which took place on June 7, a week before the election. In that debate much of the public’s suspicion and skepticism of Rouhani’s track record as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator was dispelled by Ali Akbar Velayati, who is the chief counsel of the Supreme Leader on Foreign Affairs and was one of the Principlist candidates, when he attacked Jalili’s negotiation style and corroborated Rouhani’s claim that, first of all, it is possible to avoid sanctions without having to scale back Iran’s nuclear program and, secondly, Iran’s diplomatic shortcomings under Ahmadinejad have been part of the reason why so many sanctions have been levied against Iran. Velayati’s statements in that debate brought down the wall of distrust, which was erected between the public and Rouhani as a result of Rouhani’s failure to get the West to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment, and paved the way for the public to rush in his support.

Two other incidents in that debate are also noteworthy: Qalibaf’s ineffectual attacks against Velayati and, even more importantly, against Rouhani. In both cases, Qalibaf’s attacks boomeranged back at him and for unknown reasons Qalibaf not only indirectly accepted the other candidates’ responses to his attacks but also refrained from rephrasing his arguments in hopes of making them more acceptable to the public. These two attacks severely hurt Qalibaf’s standing as an honest and moderate person and diminished his popularity in Tehran and other large metropolitan cities.

Mohammad Reza Aref’s withdrawal as the only reformist candidate in favor of Rouhani, which occurred on June 11 – only three days before the election – and Khatami and Rafsanjani’s endorsement of Rouhani also played a critical role in Rouhani’s victory. Although Aref’s poll numbers never went above 7%, this episode showcased Rouhani’s consensus building skills and his ability as a centrist to work across political divides, which is a rarity in Iran’s current political environment. This happened while the infighting among the Principlists had reached its climax, with each of the Principlists spending most of their time emphasizing why the other Principlist candidates were not fit for office.

Finally, the public perception that this election was going to go to the second round also played a role in pushing Rouhani over the 50% mark. About 17% of the public voted strategically in this election, such that instead of voting for their first choice in the first round, they assumed that their first choice was for sure going to end up in the second round, and instead voted for their second choice in hopes of preventing the candidates they did not like from making it to the second round. In fact, 24% of those who voted for Rouhani had indicated that if the election were to go to the second round, they would prefer Qalibaf over Rouhani.

Since all of these events were positive for Rouhani and since they all happened only a few days before the election, it is only reasonable that Rouhani’s surge would begin only a few days before the election.   

Given Rouhani’s emphatic victory and Saeed Jalili’s poor results, some have criticized American pundits for overwhelmingly portraying Jalili either as a frontrunner or an anointed and pre-determined winner.  Yet your results show that the number of Iranians who thought Jalili would win far outnumbered his supporters.  What do you think shaped these expectations?  Was there a widespread belief among some Iranians, as there was among some American observers, that the election would be engineered in Jalili’s favor?

Well, I would not say that it was a widespread belief. The percentage of people who believed he was eventually going to win the election never went above 22%. This number, however, is still quite high since his poll number never went above 14% and he is the only candidate who had more people thinking that he was going to win than people who were willing to vote for him. He is also the only candidate for whom a majority (58%) of his own voters believed that he was eventually going to win. This is compared with 37% of Rouhani voters who thought Rouhani was eventually going to win and 50% of Qalibaf voters who thought Qalibaf was eventually going to win the election. So, yes, some people wrongly believed foreign media analysis and western pundits that the election was going to be engineered to ensure Jalili’s victory, but that belief was far from being widespread. 

How do you explain Rouhani’s strong support among rural voters?

First, it is not overly strong. Roughly speaking, Rouhani was able to attract 50% of all segments of Iran’s electorate. The only exceptions are the predominantly Sunni ethnicities (the Kurds and Baluchis) who voted disproportionally in his favor, the ethnic Lurs among which Rouhani did not do as well since Rezaei, an ethnic Lur himself, did quite well, and, yes, smaller cities and rural areas, who voted slightly disproportionally in Rouhani’s favor. Several reasons can be cited as to why Rouhani was slightly more popular in smaller cities and rural areas, which – comparatively speaking – attach much more value to traditional and religious principles. One of the reasons was that Qalibaf and Jalili were mostly known in large metropolitan areas and had less name recognition in smaller cities and rural areas. On the other hand, Rafsanjani, who is Rouhani’s mentor and who lent his support to Rouhani, is highly regarded in these areas for a variety of reasons, including his role as a founding father of the Islamic Republic. Also, interestingly but also understandably Rouhani was recognized in all of our polls as the candidate perceived as being most religious and most concerned with religious and traditional values. So being a cleric also played some role in this regard. And finally, since smaller cities and rural areas tend to have less of a politicized environment, residents of such areas are attracted to candidates who they perceive as being less concerned with achieving factional goals and more concerned with alleviating their most immediate problems. Hence they are a lot more likely, as they have illustrated in the past, to favor continuity and they value individuals who are able to work across political divides to solve their problems.      

To what extent do you think Rouhani’s success as president will depend on his ability to quickly deliver sanctions relief?  How high are the expectations he faces?

Iranians, unfortunately, have become inured to sanctions.  They have been under various types of sanctions for different reasons since the inception of the Islamic Republic. While it is true that current sanctions have had a strong effect on Iran’s economy and the public’s well-being, Iranians blame these sanctions not on their own government, but on United States and its allies. Both our polls and Gallup’s polls show this. What has changed is that before the June 7 presidential debate, the perception was that there was nothing Iran could do, short of suspension, to avoid sanctions. Now, the narrative has changed. People believe that by a more vigorous use of diplomacy, it is possible to avoid sanctions without having to suspend enrichment.  Yet if the U.S. and the P5+1 go to the negotiation table and again demand suspension, the public could quickly revert to their old beliefs. Rouhani’s standing hence depends less on whether he mitigates sanctions and a lot more on his ability to showcase his sensitivity to Iran’s security and national interest. Indeed it would be suicidal for Rouhani to agree to a deal that would enable his political opponents to demonstrate that Rouhani is too naïve, too trusting of the West, or even a sellout or a traitor. He has been exonerated of these allegations once. It is quite unlikely that he could exonerate himself a second time.

You mentioned that a vast majority of Iranians have an unfavorable view of the United States.  Was this negative feeling directed at the U.S. government as a whole? More towards Obama? More towards the U.S. Congress?  And was there any differentiation between the U.S. government and the nation as a whole (including the people) in the responses your subjects gave?

Well, these are the standard favorability questions.   It is the country in general, and we do not usually break it down in any way. It is needless to say, that when we name the U.S. or any country with which Iranians have little people-to-people or cultural contact, what primarily comes to mind is the government of the U.S. or that country. In fact, this has been tested. Back in 2006 when PIPA asked about the United States, 76% had unfavorable opinions, when asked about the U.S. government 93% had unfavorable opinions, when asked about the American people 49% had unfavorable opinions, and when asked about American culture 78% had negative feelings.

Your polls show that 81% the public and 78% of Rouhani voters believed he should act strictly within the system.  Were there differing viewpoints as to why he should do so? 

At the very minimum, it could be understood from this that Iranians overwhelmingly do regard the Islamic Republic as an enduring political system, which will govern Iran for the foreseeable future. Now, from among them a majority do regard the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate system of government and hence want Rouhani to work within the system both for ideological and pragmatic reasons. As for the segment of the population that are at odds with the Islamic Republic, the view is that Rouhani should work within the system in order to be able to deliver on his promises and mitigate people’s problems.

Finally some observers have expressed skepticism of the results of past

PIPA/University of Tehran polling results that supported the assertion that Ahmadinejad won the 2009 election

.  How would you respond to those who did not trust those results?  Do you think there are any differences in the methods or value of the polls done surrounding the 2009 election and those you conducted this summer?

This is a very good question. Not only did the PIPA poll and the University of Tehran poll show that Ahmadinejad had won that election, but other subsequent polls conducted by non-Iranian research organizations, such as Gallup, Globescan, and International Peace Institute showed the same result. As far as the University of Tehran is concerned, our method of data collection has not changed, and in fact our results back then were closer to what happened, due to the bipolar nature of that election, than our results this time around. The problem with the 2009 election was that, unlike in this election, the votes were split along the socioeconomic classes of the electorate (polling data, available for download, illustrate this). So in that election, if you were rich and/or educated, it was unlikely that you would vote for Ahmadinejad, and if you were not rich and/or not very well educated it was likely that you would vote for Ahmadinejad. And since people do not often intermingle with those that have lower socioeconomic standings, a good portion of the people who had voted for Mousavi did not know many people who had voted for Ahmadinejad and hence could more easily believe the allegation that the election was stolen.