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The Iranian Election: An Inside Look At the Opinion Polls

June 15, 2009

Much of the heated reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election centers on the disparity between his large margin of victory and the appearance of mass support rallies for his opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Two pollsters who conducted surveys of political opinion in the run up to the election argue that the Iranian electorate’s choice of Ahmadinejad does accurately reflect the numbers predicted by their polling:

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.

This polling information is significant and provides a needed perspective in the debate that has followed the disputed election. As it runs counter to much of the coverage of the protests and allegations of election fraud that we’ve seen in the world press, it is an important element to be considered. Of course, the polling itself cannot be dispositive of the issue of fraud, nor can we be certain that the growing enthusiasm for Mousavi was accurately captured by the polling process. There is, after all, a history here and the general distrust of the election process, interventions by the Supreme Leader, arrests of demonstrators and clashes with the police have left the Mousavi supporters with legitimate concerns about the fairness of the election and the accuracy of the election results.

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