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New Pew poll: Obama Muslim myth on the rise

Topics: Barack Obama , misperception , Muslim

The Pew Research Center released a new poll this morning updating its measure of public belief in the misperception that President Obama is a Muslim (coverage: NYT, WP, AP). The news is not good -- belief that Obama is a Muslim increased from 11% in March 2009 to 18% now, while belief that Obama is a Christian declined from 48% to 34% and the group who said they didn't know increased from 34% to 43%. Here's a visualization of change in beliefs about Obama over time using the full time series from the Pew questionnaire (PDF):

Religdist

As Pew notes, "The view that Obama is a Muslim is highest among his political opponents (31% of Republicans and 30% of those who disapprove of his job performance express this view)." If we compare these results with those from March 2009, it's clear that Republican beliefs about Obama's religion have dramatically shifted:

Gopmuslim

The most important issue, though, is why the misperception has increased over time. The Washington Post story does a good job of breaking down different possible explanations:

White House officials expressed dismay over the poll results. Faith adviser Joshua DuBois blamed "misinformation campaigns" by the president's opponents...

Among those who say Obama is a Muslim, 60 percent say they learned about his religion from the media, suggesting that their opinions are fueled by misinformation.

But the shifting attitudes about the president's religious beliefs could also be the result of a public growing less enamored of him and increasingly attracted to labels they perceive as negative. In the Pew poll, 41 percent disapprove of Obama's job performance, compared with 26 percent disapproval in its March 2009 poll.

More than a third of conservative Republicans now say Obama is a Muslim, nearly double the percentage saying so early last year. Independents, too, are now more apt to see the president as a Muslim: Among independents, 18 percent say he is a Muslim, up eight percentage points.

It's extremely difficult to distinguish between these explanations in poll data; both are likely to play a role. In particular, as Republicans and independents view Obama more more unfavorably, they're likely to be more receptive to negative information about him, including false claims about his religion.

For more on why it's so difficult to correct misperceptions like this one, see my Political Behavior article with Jason Reifler (PDF). See also our working paper testing different approaches to correcting the Obama Muslim myth (PDF), which I discussed on NPR's On the Media last year.

Update 8/19 10:20 AM: Time conducted a survey this week (August 16-17) that found similarly disturbing results. Using different question wording and response options, they found that 24% of Americans believe Obama is Muslim:

16. Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?

Muslim: 24%
Christian: 47%
Other: 5%
No answer/Don't know: 24%

By contrast, here is the wording for the Pew question:

Now, thinking about Barack Obama's religious beliefs... Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?

While it's possible that the misperception increased due to Obama's comments on Friday about the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero (Pew's poll was conducted July 21-August 5), the differences between the questions mean the results are not directly comparable.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com]

 

Comments
Paleo:

As I said in another thread, most who are saying this are doing so because they consider Muslim to be a perjorative, not because they actually believe he's one.

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Ptolemy:

Could it be that people do not believe Obama is a Christian because he does not go to church?

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Paleo:

Huh? I've seen him go. And Ronald Reagan never went to church. Perhaps he was a secret Muslim.

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CompCon:

The doubts exist because Obama is a slimy corrupt lying Chicago politician. If he says the moon is round, you have to dig deeper and find out what he really means and what the lie is.

This is nothing more than a trust issue. A majority of Americans don't trust him. They have heard him lie nonstop for years now - this could be just one more lie in his political career.

Everyone on the left acts so surprised that a man who was born a muslim to a muslim father, was raised by a muslim step-father, and attended islamic schools doesn't raise any questions as to if he is still a muslim - simply because he makes a political campaign statement claiming otherwise.

How could people possibly question the honesty of a politician? What is this world coming to.

From my persepective, he isn't a muslim. He is enamored by muslims, he provides more political, financial, and moral support to muslims than any other religion, but he himself isn't a muslim. That would require him to worship another God and not worship himself.

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StatyPolly:

Nicely put, CompCon.

I glanced at Pew's freshly released faith question last night before I went to bed, and the one think that was striking was that more people were wrong/confused/dk than at any previous point. How odd, I thought, that the more the public got to know BOBO, the less they knew about him.

This morning I wake up to the glorious sights and sounds of MSNBC pondering this very question. They had Alan Cooperman, the Pew guy behind this poll on. His was very dismayed. Some observations from him. Less than 50% of Dems think BOBO is Christian. Less than 50% of blacks do. The percentage of those who thinks he is Muslim or not Christian increased evenly across all demographics since the last time the question was asked. A small, but still significant minority came to think that he is Muslim based on his own words or actions.

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Statypolly said:

"How odd, I thought, that the more the public got to know BOBO, the less they knew about him."

That's a great point, would you mind if I used it (with attribution obviously).

I'm no birther, nor do I believe Obama is a muslim, but one has to wonder why he is so secretive. A determination has obviously been made, either by Obama himself or his advisors, that there is something about his past that will put off voters. And therin lies the problem. If his past can't be trusted, what about him can be?

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StatyPolly:

Yeah, I don't even think he has all that much too hide, but he is a very secretive type.

No Birth Certificate.

No Medical Records. (if you don't count a half pager typed by a physician proclaiming good health) This is time honored tradition for all presidential candidates going back a while.

No transcripts from any of the schools. Another longstanding tradition violated.

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John:

"The percentage of those who thinks he is Muslim or not Christian increased evenly across all demographics since the last time the question was asked."

Well no, actually. The change from those who believed he is a Christian went down twice as much amongst republicans as democrats (-20% compared to -9%), and from those who believe he is muslim went up 4 times as much amongst republicans than democrats (+14% to +3%).

"Everyone on the left acts so surprised that a man who was born a muslim to a muslim father...."

Under (some interpretations of) islamic law. I had no idea you followed islamic law, CompCon. However, and not wanting to offend your beliefs here, I think that the law in the US is that you get to choose you own religion.

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AlanSnipes:

@CompCon:I live in Chicago and you obviously don't have a clue about Chicago politics or it's politicians.
You must have lying politicians where you live though, based on your ignorant racist posts.
This poll just shows the ignorance of the American public. The wingers on this site don't even care that the information is not correct. They would rather lie about someone than engage in intelligent debate.
Melvin is correct, Republican won't have much chance in future Presidential elections.
You guys might read two books (If you could read). 1). The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002)
2) Whistling Past Dixie
They show the facts about the emerging democratic majority.

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HookedOnPolls:

Obama is far more often on a golf link than in a church when Sunday rolls around.

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Paleo:

In the long run, Republicans are headed for a demographic time bomb. That's why they're all bent out of shape about Latino hordes invading the country, and Muslims. But they are still in a position to win in the next few election cycles.

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Bukama:

I lived in Chicago for three years. It is worse than other places I've lived (NY and Denver).

I agree the poll is not indicative of any truth. But Alan, you say it shows the ignorance o fthe American public - does this mean you think the American people have gotten more ignorant in the last 2 years, given the poll trend?

I wonder how much people polled on a question like this just decide to play around (it's not a serious question after all). If I were polled, i would say I don't know - because I don't know, let alone care.

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Mike E:

Could it be that people think Obama is a muslim because his father was a Muslin and, under Islamic law, that makes Obama a Muslim? Could it that Americans are simply becoming more inforned about Islamic law? Could it infact be that the American people are faster learners than the, ahem, brainiacks at pollster.com.

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CompCon:

AlanSnipes:

So you are another one of those racebaiters calling everyone a racist who doesn't trust your lying sack of poop president?

"I think that the law in the US is that you get to choose you own religion."

Yep - you sure do. He said he converted to Christianity 20 some years ago. What was he before he converted? Maybe he was the religion in which he was taught and raised?

Why are you liberals so afraid of muslims? So what if Obama is or isn't a muslim? Just like you are so race oriented. It's you Obama supporters who are obsessed with race and religion. The rest of the country doesn't really care.

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Paleo:

"Could it be that people think Obama is a muslim because his father was a Muslin and, under Islamic law, that makes Obama a Muslim? Could it that Americans are simply becoming more inforned about Islamic law? Could it infact be that the American people are faster learners than the, ahem, brainiacks at pollster.com."

And someone born of a Jewish mother is always a Jew? I guess the righties on here have eliminated conversion. Your fundamentalist Christian allies wouldn't be too happy to hear that.

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Mike E:

"I guess the righties on here have eliminated conversion. "

Its nothing to do with righties, duhh. Its the Islamic faith. Its not something righties have any control over. I guess you lefties dont consider the tenants of Islam as worthy of consideration. Your Islamist allies will be very dissapointed in you!

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Paleo:

So, are you saying individual Muslims cannot choose to convert?

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Mike E:

"So, are you saying individual Muslims cannot choose to convert?"

Try reading what I wrote. But to make it simple my opinion dosnt count. I think they should be allowed to convert. Islamic law says they are not allowed to convert. So it could be that the Americans who think Obama is a muslim are just expressing a deeper understanding of Islamic law than those who think he is a christian or a non-practising christian or whatever.

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Mike E:

The whole argument over these polls is stupid, as is doing the polls in the first place. It dosnt matter if people think he is a muslim or not. This is America, someones religion is irrelevant.

The worried frowns and alarmed "the news is not good" from over excited pundits like Brendan Nyhan are all smoke and no fire. Who cares?

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Paleo:

"Islamic law says they are not allowed to convert."

And Jewish law says a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. So, if a Jew born of a Jewish mother converted to Christianity, how many people would say that person was Jewish?

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Mike E:

"how many people would say that person was Jewish?"

I bet most of those who were ortohodx Jews would.

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CompCon:

@Paleo: "I guess the righties on here have eliminated conversion."

If this is about conversion, then what did Obama convert from? How could this have anything to do with conversion if he was never a Muslim in the first place?

You have to be something before you convert to something else.

All "righties" that I know of support conversion. Does that mean you admit that Obama is a converted Muslim?

If we get Sha'ria law, like the imam Obama is helping to build the ground zero mosque wants, then Obama is a muslim because of his father and he should be executed for rejecting islam.

Thankfully not many people want Sha'ria law like Obama is helping bring here.

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Farleftandproud:

I tell ya, i can still be friends with people who disagree with Obama, but I refuse to even speak with people who think he was born outside the country and is a Moslim. I think they are jackasses of the 1st degree.

Don't forget, that GOP idiot in SC who ran against Nikki Halley tried to pull the same crap on her and said she is still a Sikh, even though Halley had converted to be an evangelical Christian. They will do anything and everything to lie and decieve.

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AlanSnipes:

@compcon: Why do you care what the President's religion is?
That says something about you.

@bukama: Yes, I believe the public has gotten more ignorant the last two years. After all, the people like you who now do most of the whining about gummint kept your mouths shut when Bush was President. You weren't concerned about spending or deficits then. The reason these protetsers are racists is because they complain about government spending to help those less fortunate, many of whom are minorities, and kept their mouths shut when Bush was shoveling money to the rich and well connected.
And I will keep saying so!

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sjt22:

Are we really still talking about this?

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. He's released his birth certificate. There are newspaper accounts at the time confirming his birth in the Hawaii. He's a natural born US citizen. Fact. Period.

His father was born into the Islamic tradition but he abandoned that religion and became an atheist before Barack was born. His mother was a secular humanist who didn't raise her son in any religious tradition.

Barack found his religion as an adult, becoming a Christian, which he still is.

He hasn't joined a church in DC, but he does go to church, and he does pray daily. Sometimes he does so via telephone with a collection of christian ministers. At least one of these ministers was also a spiritual adviser to President Bush.

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Hawk:

It seems that whether Obama is a Muslim according to Islamic law should only really matter to devout Muslims.

Even though Jewish law may say that a Jew born of a Jewish mother is always Jewish (even if he/she converts to Christianity), I think most Americans (those who aren't Orthodox Jews) would consider them to be Christian.

I don't see why this should be any different for Muslims. Islamic law shouldn't matter for non-Muslims, just as how what Jewish law considers someone doesn't matter for non-Jews.

That would mean perhaps up to 1% of the population (those who are Muslim) might be justified in considering him Muslim according to their reading of Islamic law. The other 17% can't use that argument (born to a Muslim father - even a non-practicing one) as justification for their beliefs unless they are also consistent in believing Jews converting to Christianity are Jewish, not Christian. That would at least be internally consistent, but still a pretty odd belief.

Having known people who've converted to Christianity from places like Iran and Pakistan, I think it would be very strange to consider them Muslim still. They had to flee their country because of their beliefs, and 18% of people would tell them that they're Muslim still?

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David Mehegan:

It is striking to me that those who believe -- or allege -- that Obama is a Muslim seem to have forgotten completely the earlier furious Conservative accusation against him: that he shared the controversial views of his now-former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Do these people think a Muslim would be a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church? Or do they think that Wright, too, is a secret Muslim?

What this is really about is a deep-seated fear of Obama's differentness -- his color, his middle name (indeed his first and last names, too), his African Muslim roots on his father's side, his early years in Indonesia and that other furrin place -- Hawaii. He just doesn't conform to some people's idea of what a president is supposed to be, and look, like. It's a fear of the perceived alien, and Muslim is just a serviceable name for it.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"He just doesn't conform to some people's idea of what a president is supposed to be, and look, like. It's a fear of the perceived alien, and Muslim is just a serviceable name for it."

Exactly. Most of the respondents probably couldn't name the fundamental tenets of Islam.

"his color, his middle name (indeed his first and last names, too)"

Incidentally, the name "Barak" is a biblical, Hebrew name. Not a Muslim, Arabic name. Read Judges chapter 4. The original Barak was one of the Hebrew warriors.

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Mike E:

Its rather irrelevent if he is a Muslim or not. What is becoming increasingly clear is that he is a staggeringly incompetent president.

Americas liberals need to move past their obsession with race and background and concentrate on competence.

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Mike E:

If Obama is a Muslim or not is an irrelevance relative to the fact that he is staggeringly incompetent.

Americas left needs to move past its obsession with race and background and focus like a laser on the competence of its candidates.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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Profnickd.wordpress.com:

Islam is hostile to secularism, democracy, and constitutionalism (re: jihad, dhimmitude, the fusion of religion throughout society, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, gross inequality of women, etc.). The fact that the Obama administration consistently denies this and, indeed, doesn't even want to use the term "Islam" in association with "extremism" -- or for that matter, "terrorism" -- makes it perfectly understandable that average Americans wonder about his religious affiliation.

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CompCon:

Aaron:

Maybe Obama is Jewish.

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Huda:

MikeE: "Its nothing to do with righties, duhh. Its the Islamic faith."

The stupidity and ignorance of the American people never cease to entertain me. Then again, when they are as ignorant about their Christian faith, no one expects them to be enlightened on another one.

For those of us who choice to be Muslims, do not consider ourselves Muslims because of our parents faith or lack of it. There are no theological evidence within Islamic jurisprudence when it comes to what makes a Muslim other than stating and practicing such faith.

Besides, Jewish law does not compare here. Ever since the Assyrian empire and its destruction on the Jewish tribes, its been a maternal lineage for Jewish children to trace their heritage thru their mothers. Jewish heritage is ethnically based and even though its closer to Islam in term of faith, its completely different. Islam is not linked to ethnicity or parental, since Muslims come in all various ethnic and nationalities around the world...one have to state his/her believe in Islam to be considered one.

These polls do not surprise me since its about a whole lot of convoluted issues from his race, name, lack of any religious overtone (thank God because I can't stand politicians and their hypocrisy with Church going). Having said that, I don't see the big deal here. The same number of people probably do not believe he's an American citizen. There is always about 24-25% of Americans who are what I called pointless to reach.

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TxTee:

Obama is a Muslim because he said so, as in "my Islamic faith" on TV in front of all. You do not make a misstep like that. A Jew would never accidentally say "my hindu faith" or "my Catholic faith" - it would not happen. Plus bowing to the King of Saudia Arabia didn't help - and being anti-jewish doesn't help and his pastor was a muslim, that doesn't help the Christian story.

And this has been mentioned before, but he has chunks of his path that are not explained like his time in Pakistan and his college grades.

Obama came in as a cipher and will leave as a zero. I amuse myself.

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