WASHINGTON — Ask a Republican in Maryland about President Barack Obama's nuclear talks with Iran, and there's a good chance the response will be negative.
But lay out the arguments for and against those negotiations, and the share of Republicans willing to call the controversial talks "acceptable" grows from 53 percent to 62 percent in a matter of minutes.
Figuring out how people actually feel when they respond to political polls — and separating those feelings from the hyper-partisanship that has come to define the nation's politics — is at the heart of a new effort by a University of Maryland researcher and a longtime political operative.
The group, Voice of the People, is testing a new way of polling in three states: deeply red Oklahoma, swingy Virginia and blue-leaning Maryland. They focus on complicated issues, including the Iran talks, with the goal of putting respondents through the same thought process as the lawmakers who represent them.
"Most polling is not about consulting the public. Most polling is 'how would you react?'" said Steven Kull, a political psychologist at the University of Maryland. "Rather than treating the public as just a bunch of reactions ... we're inviting them to come into more of a problem-solving mode."
Unlike in a traditional poll, Kull relies on a pool of respondents the group returns to repeatedly over the course of several months. As they work through the questions online, respondents are given background material that has been vetted by Democratic and Republican congressional aides so that all perspectives are included.
These "policymaking simulations" — as Kull describes them — take about 20 minutes for participants to complete.
Kull has been developing the more in-depth surveys for several years. Now he has begun to narrow the geography to three states and in particular two congressional districts: The Baltimore-based 7th District, represented by Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, and Republican Rep. Tom Cole's 4th District, which sprawls south from Oklahoma City.
The group, created by Kull and Democratic operative Richard Parsons, was looking for diversity, both political and demographic. In that sense, the two districts are about as far apart as one can get.
The realpolitik value of the results is open for debate. People who respond to traditional surveys carry the same biases — and, in some cases, uninformed opinions — with them into the voting booth on Election Day.
But Kull's approach isn't designed to predict election outcomes, rather to help lawmakers understand the public's values.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said that Voice of the People's approach isn't better or worse. It's just different.
"To me, it's almost how we wish the world would be," Kromer said. "It would be wonderful if people thought about issues in some sort of nonpartisan way. But oftentimes people consume information from sources that already support their point of view."
About two-thirds of Marylanders initially rated the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran as acceptable, while another 14 percent found it tolerable. There was a split between Democrats, 75 percent of whom backed the idea, and Republicans, 53 percent of whom accepted it.
The poll found similar partisan divides in Oklahoma and Virginia.
Respondents were then presented with arguments for and against the deal, which the Obama administration has been pursuing for months along with five other nations.
"We have been applying sanctions for years now and yet Iran's uranium enrichment program has only grown," respondents are told during the course of the survey. "Given that the Iranian government says that it is ready to make a deal based on a commitment not to build nuclear weapons, we should give this option a chance."
Alternatively, respondents are told that Tehran has repeatedly ignored United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for an end to its enrichment program.
"We should not reward Iran's defiance by giving in and letting it go ahead and enrich," respondents are told. "This will lead others to defy international rules to extract concessions."
The poll was conducted from February to June and has a statewide margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Negotiators announced last week that they will extend a June 30 deadline to deliver an agreement with Iran until July 7. The talks have been controversial, and some Republicans have expressed concern that the administration is giving up more than it will win.
Lawmakers approved a law, negotiated in part by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, that gives Congress 30 days to review the final agreement, should one materialize.
Voice of the People released a poll on Marylander's views on Social Security in April. And it is working on surveys about the Postal Service and the federal budget.
How much stock lawmakers put in the results remains to be seen. Most politicians are reluctant to say they are guided by polls, even highbrow surveys that are geared at engaging their constituents.
Cummings and Cole acknowledged meeting with Voice of the People.
"It is one of many constituent organizations from which I gather information as I evaluate the legislation brought before the House of Representatives for consideration," Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.
Cole, a deputy whip who is close to House Speaker John Boehner, said he also is watching the results. Prior to his election in 2002, Cole ran a political consulting and polling firm.
"The goal of their project is to provide an in-depth, detailed view of what people think on big issues," he said. "While the program is still a work in progress, it is an interesting, legitimate project and could potentially offer helpful information for understanding the views of constituents."
Voice of the People asked Marylanders how they feel about the U.S. continuing to pursue a long-term agreement that limits Iran's enrichment of uranium as it pursues nuclear energy, allows inspections in that country and gradually eases sanctions. After reading pros and cons, a majority found the talks acceptable:
Statewide: 67 percent
Republicans: 62 percent
Democrats: 75 percent
Independents: 54 percent