Writing in The Washington Post this morning, Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen tackle the known unknowns of the Iranian election:

There were few independent polls taken before the election and no exit polls afterward, making it extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of the vote counts announced by the government.

A telephone poll co-sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation, conducted May 11-20, showed Ahmadinejad with a 2 to 1 lead over Mousavi, but 52 percent of those surveyed either had no opinion or refused to answer, making many analysts wary of the results, especially because it was taken more than three weeks before the heated contest. When the poll was released, it predicted the vote would be “closer … than the numbers would indicate” and that no candidate would get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.”

The Terror Free Tomorrow folks penned an op-ed in The Washington Post yesterday arguing that the poll they conducted was perfectly consistent with Ahmedinejad’s victory, and asserting that “the election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.” Juan Cole emphatically disagreed, arguing that the writers presented a misleading picture of their own data:

The poll did not find that Ahmadinejad had majority support. It found that the level of support for the incumbent was 34%, with Mousavi at 14%.

27% said that they were undecided. (Some 22% of respondents are not accounted for by any of the 4 candidates or by the undecided category, and I cannot find an explanation for this. Did they plan to write in for other candidates? A little over a quarter of respondents did say they wanted more choice than they were being given. Update: Some of this 22% refused to answer, others said they did not like any of the candidates. Ahmadinejad is unlikely to have picked up the latter, and Mousavi supporters were more likely to refuse to answer.)

Here’s the important point: 60% of the 27% who said they were undecided favored political reform… That is, supporters of the challenger’s principles may not quite have committed to him at that point but were likely leaning to him on the basis of his platform.

They were 16% of the sample. This finding suggests that in mid-May, Mousavi may have actually had 30% support.

If Ahmadinejad got all of the other 11% among undecideds, the race would have stood at 45% to 30%.

In another post, Cole gives the numbers and cites Ahmadinejad’s implausible margins of victory (over 50 percent) in urban districts, where Mousavi, “according to such polls as exist in Iran and widespread anecdotal evidence,” enjoys a distinct advantage. He also notes that the other two presidential candidates, who do, after all, have hometowns and constituencies, got suspicious numbers as well:

It is claimed that cleric Mehdi Karoubi, the other reformist candidate, received 320,000 votes, and that he did poorly in Iran’s western provinces, even losing in Luristan. He is a Lur and is popular in the west, including in Kurdistan. Karoubi received 17 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2005. While it is possible that his support has substantially declined since then, it is hard to believe that he would get less than one percent of the vote. Moreover, he should have at least done well in the west, which he did not… Mohsen Rezaie, who polled very badly and seems not to have been at all popular, is alleged to have received 670,000 votes, twice as much as Karoubi.

Nate Silver provides a more technical rundown, in part based on his finding last week of a roughly inverse correlation between voter turnout and margin of victory. (That is, the higher the turnout, the more competitive the election.) Based on this election’s remarkably high turnout (around 85 percent), Silver writes, “We would have expected Ahmadinejad’s result from Friday, informed by the polling, historical trends and a bit of bet-hedging, to be between 40% and 55%.” And he, too, points out that Karroubi’s numbers might be the smoking gun:

Karroubi was the leading reform candidate of the 2005 election cycle, in close competition with one other reform candidate, one centrist, and two conservatives, including Ahmadinejad. He won in 11 of Iran’s 30 provinces, the most of any candidate that year, and was within 2 points of advancing to the run-off. It was a strong showing, which encouraged him and his backers to challenge Ahmadinejad again this year.

Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review