About Those Polls That Ask If People Think Obama Is A Muslim

Yesterday I made note of yet another poll that seemed to show a distressing number of people, in this case Alabama and Mississippi Republicans, who continued to believe that the President was a Muslim despite all evidence to the contrary. Not surprisingly the poll generated much commentary online, but David Graham at The Atlantic thinks we should all be a little careful about jumping to any conclusion about polls like this:

In this case the biggest problem is that they’re asking the question at all. The belief that Obama is a Muslim, like the belief that he is somehow not an American citizen, is pernicious and flatly wrong. It has also been rejected by the vast majority of the American body politic, although there are some glaring examples of politicians who flirt with it to score political points. But if the goal is to fight mistaken beliefs, this is the wrong way to do it. The Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has researched misperceptions and conspiracy-theory belief in America politics. In particular, he and colleague Jason Reifler have found that false ideas, once introduced, are very hard to get rid of. One especially bad way to fight them is to reiterate them:

The more times a false claim is repeated, the more likely people are to be exposed to it. The fewer people exposed to a false claim, the less likely it is to spread. It is also important not to repeat false claims because people are more likely to judge familiar claims as true. As false claims are repeated, they become more familiar and thus may come to seem more true to people.

The pollsters, by asking the question, and news outlets, by gleefully publicizing the results, are playing into this vicious cycle. Besides, there’s a difference between asking whether respondents believe in interracial marriage (which PPP also did) and asking whether they believe the president is a Muslim or Kenyan. The first is a matter of opinion; the second is objectively either true or false (as it happens, both are false). The problem is that it’s unclear to what extent people really believe these things.

Michelle Cottle argues that pollsters are engaging in a bit of an anti-Southern bias when they direct questions like this only to one specific part of the country:

Now no one appreciates the absurdity of the South’s retrograde conservatism more than I. For all its many charms, the “real America” that Sarah Palin et al. so mythologize sports its fair share of warts, zits, and infected boils.

That said, I do get my back up when people seem to be taking cheap shots at my tribe. And this PPP report has all the earmarks of a poll taken with the specific, if perhaps unconscious, goal of confirming all of the nation’s very worst biases about the South.

So an average of one in four respondents still can’t get with that whole ebony-and-ivory thing. Appallingly racist? You betcha. But can someone please explain to me what this has to do with the current Republican presidential race? Discussions of gay marriage I understand. But interracial marriage—since when is this a relevant topic in American politics?

Similarly, why do we need to know respondents’ views on evolution? Last time I checked, not even Santorum was waving the creationism (or intelligent design) banner in this race.

Which could explain why, when I went back and looked through the rest of PPP’s polls from this year, I couldn’t find any other states that were asked about evolution. Ditto questions about whether Obama is a Muslim. And in only one other state did I see voters being asked about interracial marriage: South Carolina. (Surprise!) I suppose it’s possible I missed one or two. But let us concede that these sorts of questions are in no way standard fare.

(…)

No question, the results of this PPP poll kick-started the party this week, providing fodder for another round of smug cocktail-party chatter about the similarities between Hattiesburg and Kabul. But every state has its not-so-admirable biases. And asking Republicans in these particular states—and evidently only these states—about these particular issues smacks not so much of political research as cultural profiling.

Graham and Cottle both make good points. In the end, what is the point of questions like this and why are they always directed at Southerners? It certainly doesn’t add anything to the debate.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Politicians, Public Opinion Polls, Quick Takes, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    I quite agree with the article. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether a person called at home, agreeing to the survey, might hear the question (“Do you think the President is Muslin?”) and answer, “hell, yes!”, if only to shock the interviewer and make his time on the phone worthwhile.

  2. Rob in CT says:

    My gut reaction is that I don’t have a problem with the questions, but do have a problem with only asking them in certain states (where you suspect you’ll get juicy high percentages of people to answer yes).

    The interracial marriage question strikes me as a proxy for “are you a big ‘ole racist?” 1st black president, a lot of hyperbolic attacks that have racial aspects to ’em… I think the question makes some sense in this context – but it shouldn’t just be asked in MS.

    The birther/muslim question taps into the same thing, plus a side helping of “can you evaluate evidence or are you a complete moron?”

    I think the evolution question also functions as a proxy: “are you so blindly faithful you reject the ToE?” This only really makes sense in a D vs R context if one party has aligned itself against science… which the GOP basically has done.

    Anyway, the Qs are ok by me. The way they’re asked/not asked in different states… not so much. There I agree with Ms. Cottle.

  3. @John Peabody:

    I’ve never been polled myself but if I was the temptation to give the pollster completely wacky answers would be hard to suppress.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    Understandable that every region has various failures to live up to the mean; I hear in New England they think boiling is an acceptable thing to do to seafood prior to eating it. And I don’t know how to measure what I’m trying to describe exactly so cannot quickly find it on the google. But as a lifelong southern boy I declare firmly that we in Dixie do xenophobia better than almost anywhere else.

    And as to Mr Santorum, perhaps he is not ‘waving a flag’ about being in favor of ignorance but a simple seach for “Santorum Amendment” will explain his position on the question. In that amendment to the ‘NCLB Act’ he attempted to mandate ‘Intellegent Design’ as a national curriculum. Because he believes in a limited federal government, one supposes.

  5. Bob Morris says:

    Indeed, the poll results could also be due to the well-known propensity of southerners to say outrageous things in hopes of making the heads of Yankee liberals explode.

  6. John Patti says:

    I have to admit, i don’t normally agree with the author but i think he does a good job. The damn birth mystery is all Obama’s doing. We never had a politician with all their records off limits. So yes, the media keeps repeating the question and they keep getting the same answer, thereby keeping his lack of a life story in the news. It’s Alinsky 24/7 with this group in DC, mock and punish your enemies.

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    I’d argue that poll results like this will be used by the left to create punchlines – but that they’d be better served being used by the right to track the effectiveness of their messaging. Were I working for the RNC, these results would make me worry that I needed to do a better job of focusing on issues that would grow my political ranks – as these are going to help reduce them.

    Also, agreed that only focusing on one part of the country kind of assumes a bias against that part.

  8. Kenny says:

    The one great sadness of becoming a no-landline home is the absence of survey phone calls.

    The highly trained, over-qualified and well-compensated person on the other end of the conversation frequently was told the methodology and survey questions were so poor that I must stop answering questions. And then we could make fun of them for hours.

    Good times.

  9. legion says:

    pollsters are engaging in a bit of an anti-Southern bias when they direct questions like this only to one specific part of the country

    That’s an entirely reasonable complaint; I live way up in Idaho, but I certainly wouldn’t look forward to the results of a poll asking that same question here…

    But can someone please explain to me what this has to do with the current Republican presidential race? Discussions of gay marriage I understand. But interracial marriage—since when is this a relevant topic in American politics?

    This, OTOH, misses the point. It’s a completely legitimate question, in the context that if you just straight-up ask someone “Are you RAYCESS?”, only the most loud-and-proud pinheads will actually answer yes. When you’re looking for uncomfortable truths, you have ask questions around the edge of the subject, or people will just start giving you the answers they think you expect/want to hear.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    Indeed, the poll results could also be due to the well-known propensity of southerners to say outrageous things in hopes of making the heads of Yankee liberals explode.

    Yes, of course, because as we all know. racism no longer exists…still, it is understandable why Southerners would be upset with Yankees…losing tends to do that…

    The damn birth mystery is all Obama’s doing. We never had a politician with all their records off limits.

    I trust you have information indicating how the 43 previous presidents provided their birth certificates for all to see…

    It’s Alinsky 24/7 with this group in DC, mock and punish your enemies.

    It’s Alinsky 24/7 alright, but only with people like you…

  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, the inherent irony with the liberal media’s agenda-based journalism (in this case they think they’re scoring points by throwing darts at Southerners) is that often the law of unintended consequences rears its head. We’ve seen this before in various other contexts.

    When Clinton took over in 1993, for example, the liberal media had a collective orgasm after 12 consecutive years of Republicans in the Oval Office. Breathlessly they pushed the agenda of Hillarycare, tax hikes, gays in the military and affirmative action on college and university campuses. In 1994 Republicans took over Congress for the first time in several decades. That’s not entirely coincidental.

    The media made three huge mistakes in 2003-2004. They bashed the Iraq war so incessantly and so ghoulishly focused themselves on the death count for U.S. troops the general public tuned out the entire affair. By the time November rolled around the independents and moderates who decide elections didn’t really care that things were going poorly in Iraq. They had become numb to it. Excoriating Bush over lost jobs in 2003 created a huge problem for the media in 2004 when the job market turned around. They should have played it closer to the vest. Of course Rather’s fake but accurate nonsense went over like a lead balloon. CBS would have been better served focusing on Bush’s policy-based decisions, e.g. steel tariffs, profilgate spending, etc., instead of projecting their personal hatred of the man.

    The media celebrated early in 2010 after Obamacare was passed. In November 2010 Democrats suffered one of the worst mid-term defeats in history. Again, that’s not entirely a coincidence.

    There are many other examples.

    Moral of the story: When you throw stones you always have to consider the ripple effects.

  12. Davebo says:

    I’ve never been polled myself but if I was the temptation to give the pollster completely wacky answers would be hard to suppress.

    Come on Doug (not a republican). You have more temptations than that that you can’t seem to suppress.

  13. Peter says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    “I’ve never been polled myself but if I was the temptation to give the pollster completely wacky answers would be hard to suppress. ”

    Well I’ve been “tried to poll” several times and I believe like most people who aren’t interested I just said thanks but no thanks and hung up rather than wasting time giving wacky answers.

    P.S: you do realize that they ask much more questions than the poll publishes, the additional questions being to determine if the interviewee is bullshiting ? Of course you didn’t you never answered a poll.

  14. Peter,

    Yea I do know a little something about that. One of the courses I took toward my Poli Sci major covered polling. Of course, that was back in the mid-80s and things have changed greatly since then.

  15. PogueMahone says:

    Graham and Cottle both make good points.

    No they don’t.

    That said, I do get my back up when people seem to be taking cheap shots at my tribe. And this PPP report has all the earmarks of a poll taken with the specific, if perhaps unconscious, goal of confirming all of the nation’s very worst biases about the South.

    They’re not cheap shots if they confirm the very worst “biases” about the South.

    So an average of one in four respondents still can’t get with that whole ebony-and-ivory thing. Appallingly racist? You betcha. But can someone please explain to me what this has to do with the current Republican presidential race?

    She must have noticed that Obama is black, right? (or worse…. the child of an inter-racial couple!!!!!!!!) So yeah, it’s relevant.

    Similarly, why do we need to know respondents’ views on evolution?

    Who is Ms. Cottle to determine what “we” need to know? Besides, “we” don’t want creationism taught side-by-side with evolution in our science classes. So maybe “we” want to know.

    And asking Republicans in these particular states—and evidently only these states—about these particular issues smacks not so much of political research as cultural profiling.

    She only feels that way because the results embarrassed her and her “tribe.”

    Cheers.

  16. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I have been polled and normally give answers that are not whacky but provide more analytical information than the pollster is looking for.

    For example, I answered one question, because of (some arcane point about the questions language) I should answer “no,” but because that is the outlying position on this issue, I guess my answer should be “yes” but only when…”

    It was very frustrating for the pollster, because, she was clearly either attempting to copy all of what I had said (or pretenting to copy it all very well).

  17. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @An Interested Party: Cue the next urban legend: we could call it “Saul Alinski’s Secret Obama Records File.”

  18. michael reynolds says:

    It’s totally the fault of the pollster that he asked racists about racism and got racist answers.

  19. Rick Almeida says:

    @Bob Morris:

    I’d love to see any evidence of this “well known propensity” you can provide.

  20. Jenos Idanian says:

    People who think Obama’s a Muslim are just plain ignorant.

    Obama could never accept the notion of a power greater than him, let alone submit to it.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @Jenos Idanian: and your evidence for this is…? And no, screaming “because he’s a Marxist-Alinsky-Mooslim-Socialist!” isn’t considered evidence, not even in law courts in the South.

    (If any presidential candidate deserves your slur, it’s probably Newt. Santorum simply knows what the mind of God is, What God Wishes, and How You Must All Obey Me Because I Know What God Wants.)

  22. Jenos Idanian says:

    @grumpy realist: Here’s something: Obama “prays” to himself.

    “I think I have an ongoing conversation with God. Throughout the day I’m constantly asking myself questions about what I’m doing, why I am doing it.”

    Yeah, I’m being a bit flippant. But there’s a core of truth there.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    Obama could never accept the notion of a power greater than him, let alone submit to it.

    I’m sure his egomania is like nothing compared to yours…