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Berinsky: Poll Shows False Obama Beliefs A Function of Partisanship

Topics: Barack Obama , Birthers , Obama birthplace , Obama Hawaii , Obama Indonesia , Obama Kenya

Adam J. Berinsky is associate professor of political science at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the author of Silent Voices: Public Opinion and Political Participation in America and In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq.

In politics, as in life, where you stand depends upon where you sit. Recent polling I have conducted demonstrates that what people believe to be true about the political world is in large part a function of whether they are a Democrat or a Republican.

Last month the Pew Center for the People and the Press conducted a poll which found that almost 20 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that President Obama is a Muslim, and another 43 percent cannot identify his religion. Recently released polls by Time and Newsweek confirm the prevalence of this false information.

These findings have sparked a flood of analysis. Some commentators have rightly pointed out that large numbers of Americans believe a number of crazy things. For instance, according to Gallup, 18 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. Others have argued that Republican politicians and conservative media sources have helped perpetuate the myth of Obama's religious identity. Recent polling I have conducted seems to support the latter view. There is a strong political component to misinformation about Obama's beliefs and identity. But politically motivated misinformation is not limited to Republicans. Some Democrats are quite willing to believe false information about Republican politicians. The politics of misinformation, it seems, is not so much a product of direct reactions to Obama as it is to the polarized nature of the current political times.

At their heart, questions about Obama's religion are critical because they are tied into broader questions about his character and ability to lead. As part of a larger project on the political consequences of misinformation, I measured belief in another controversy that gets to heart of Obama's identity as an American - whether people believe that he is a citizen of the United States.

I contracted Polimetrix/Yougov to conduct a national internet sample of 800 Americans, from July 8th to July 15th, 2010. I asked, "Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States or not?" Consistent with other polls on the "birther" controversy, I found that 27 percent of respondents said that Obama was not born in the U.S. and another 19 percent did not know if he was or not. These findings paint a picture that is similarly unsettling to the Pew polling - misinformation about Obama's national and religious identity is pervasive.

My results raise a number of important questions. One question is whether some people are simply ignorant about politics - as they are about other aspects of the world (as the Gallup question mentioned above would suggest) - or if instead the uncertainty about Obama's background is politically motivated.

To adjudicate as best I could between these two explanations, I asked a follow-up question of those people who said that Obama was not born in the U.S. or were unsure about where he was born. Specifically, I gave them a multiple choice question: "Where do you think Obama was born: Indonesia, Kenya, The Philippines, Hawaii, or some other place."

I picked this multiple-choice question rather than an open-ended question in part because it was easier to ask the question this way, but also to see how the story dominant among "birthers" (Obama was born in Kenya) fared in relation to other possibilities, including one that could be derived from general ignorance (Hawaii was made a state in 1959; Obama was born in 1961).

The vast majority of these respondents subscribed to the dominant conspiracy story, choosing Kenya as Obama's birthplace. Among the 46 percent of respondents who either said that Obama was not born in the U.S. or were unsure if he was, two thirds said he was born in Kenya. This pattern was especially pronounced among those who said that Obama was not born in the U.S. - almost three-quarters of these respondents said he was born in Kenya.

There is some evidence that, since the beginning of the year, the story about Obama's citizenship has become clearer. Earlier in the year, in January 2010, I designed the follow-up question described above for inclusion on a survey conducted by Angus Reid Global Monitoring. In that poll, the distribution of beliefs about Obama's citizenship were roughly similar to what they are now - 25 percent said that he was not born in the U.S. and 20 percent were not sure where he was born. However, the follow-up looked very different - only 41 percent chose Kenya (the dominant "birther story"), while 25 percent chose Hawaii (a clear demonstration of ignorance). Thus, over the last seven months, it seems that the "birther" story has become more pervasive.

Partisan differences in beliefs about Obama's citizenship also indicate that the uncertainty about Obama's background is politically motivated. Though it has been said before, the difference between partisans in their beliefs about Obama's citizenship is striking. As the data show, the vast majority of Democrats say that Obama was born in the U.S. and a plurality of Republicans say that he was not. Similar patterns emerge when beliefs are broken down by approval for Obama; the President's supporters think he is a natural-born citizen and his opponents do not. Put simply, on the question of Obama's citizenship, where you stand depends on where you sit.

This pattern of partisan misperception is striking and carries over to other political rumors. On the July Polimetrix/YouGov survey, I also asked my respondents questions about whether they thought that the changes to the health care system that have been enacted by Congress and the Obama administration create "death panels" and whether John Kerry lied about his actions during the Vietnam war in order to receive medals from the U.S. Army.

The large partisan gaps found in the acceptance of false beliefs about Obama's citizenship, not surprisingly, extended to rumors about Obama's policies. But they also extended to rumors about other Democratic politicians as well - a majority of Republicans said that Kerry lied to receive medals and a majority of Democrats said that he did not.

The pervasiveness of politically motivated perceptions of reality is not limited to Republicans. On my survey I also asked respondents if they thought that "people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East." The overall acceptance of this particular piece of misinformation was lower than the Obama citizenship case - 18 percent thought that government officials were aware of the attack beforehand and another 18 percent were unsure - but the accusation here is certainly more severe. What is important for present purposes is that partisan differences in acceptance of this statement were large, as shown in this graph (which has been placed on the same scale as the birther graph above to facilitate comparisons).

These same differences do not, however, extend to rumors that are not grounded in partisan politics. I also asked respondents a question that has been asked on several surveys in the past, "Do you believe that a spacecraft from another planet crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947?" As the graph below shows, the stark partisan differences found on the other questions do not emerge in the case of beliefs about alien life.

All these results beg the question of what can be done to correct these persistent misperceptions. The answer is difficult, largely because the incorrect beliefs about politics are as much a function of partisan perceptions as they are about genuine ignorance.

Clearly, some people hold false beliefs because they do not pay much attention to the political world. Providing these individuals with greater knowledge of politics might improve the situation. In order to assess the impact of general ignorance, I measured how much my respondents knew about politics by asking them a series of three factual questions about political figures and political processes.

The results here are somewhat heartening. I found that the more of these factual questions the respondents got right, the more likely they were to think that Obama was a citizen. Contrary to the findings of some scholars who examined beliefs about rumors concerning death panels, I found that information had the same effect for both Democrats and Republicans. However, the news is not all rosy on this score; even information can only get us so far. There were large differences between the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans at all levels of political attentiveness and even among Republicans who got all three of my factual questions right, 27 percent believed that Obama was not born in the U.S.

So what can be done? In a recently published paper that has received a great deal of deserved attention, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler hold out little hope for the possibility of correcting false beliefs. In fact, they argue that providing misinformed people the truth can exacerbate the problem, because these people just cling more firmly to their false beliefs. In a project associated with the Polimetrix/YouGov survey, I have begun to explore other possibilities and I remain hopeful. Still, given the nature of the current political climate, it may be a long road to find a common political reality that everyone can believe in.

 

Comments
Bukama:

I'm perplexed by the articles final question: "So what can be done?" It presumes that it is the govermnet's or MIT's or someone's responsibility to "fix" the American public. People believe what they choose to believe, for a large variety of reasons. This study adequately demonstrates that partisan political leanings certainly are one of those reasons. But so what - people have a right in this country to believe what they want to believe. The mistake is in fearing that the beliefs are driving decisions - I'm confident its the other way around - decisions drive beliefs.

So someone decides they are a deidcated Republican or Democrat. They will then adopt beliefs, if they aren't too crazy, that support teh decision they already made. I would honestly say I don't known that President Obama was born in Hawaii, or an other partcular location. I would say this because 1) I wasn't there when he was born, and 2) unlike most Americans, he does seem to lack many o fthe confirmations of place of birth (photos, doctor names, orig. birth certificate, corroborating family members, etc.) that most people have.

But this is not the reason I voted against Obama. I am a Republican and was going to vote against him anyway - the belief (or unsureness in my case) is convenient for the decision I already made. If I was a Democrat, I probably would be more likely to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and say I "believe" he was born in Hawaii (relying on the state certification of birth and that Obama says he was born their).

For the record, I don't believe aliens landed in Roswell, I do believe Oswell was the lone shooter, and I don't believe the US gov't was involved in 9/11.

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boomer40:

LOL birthers. I wonder if 24aheaddotcom will start posting here too.

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s.b.:

Do you think that divergent opinions on Mr. Obama's background have anything to do with the fact that the Main Stream Press absolutely refused to do their job and vet him as a presidential candidate?

We know what Sarah Palin paid for her hair cuts when she was Mayor of Wasilla. We know all about her baby shower for Trigg, but there was absolutely no coverage of Obama's life in Indonesia, possible citizenship there (more an issue than where he was born), funding of his higher education by Muslims, attendance at a Muslim school, associations with Rezko, trip to Pakistan in the 1980's, attendance at an American hating church.(until the mainstream press was forced to cover it) etc. etc.

I don't live in the US but knew about Rev. Wright and Rezko 6 months before it was covered in the media in your country.

When the Press refuses to do it's job, others will do it for them. He looks like he is hiding things. It makes his background an issue and people can place their own interpretations on bits of knowledge they come across.

When the MSM does a complete vetting of Obama's background, and they still haven't, then we can criticise those that try to do it for them. Until then, too bad. That's what you get when the press gets together aka journolist and decides to cook an election.

I also take issue again with your choice of language that some people who are being polled are wrong. You are a pollster. Stick to polling and don't place your own value judgements on the answers. It is 100% legitimate that many Americans think that Mr. Obama doesn't fit their definition of Christian. Certainly, the only chruch he's ever been a member of is highly questionable and seems more like a black power political platform than a recognizable ministry to many, myself included.

He may not be a Christian, as many people define it. That is not a lie, or something false. It is just their belief based on their values. They are entitled to it. Telling people he's Christian isn't enough, no matter how many times the Huffington Post does it. He has to actually demonstrate to Americans that he is Christian, by lets say going to a mainstream church, which he doesn't.

Telling people he isn't a Muslim isn't enough, no matter how many times the Huffington Post calls people racist or stupid for believing that there is something more to Mr. Obama's background than Christianity, and they are correct.

Mr. Obama needs to start being honest with the American people, talk about his Muslim heritage and upbringing, and discuss why he became a Christian instead. Ariana can call me racist and stupid all she wants. I know that I am neither, and that people who want the press to do their job aren't necesarily either. Perhaps we are just more informed than Ms. Huffington and others would like us to be, by the press outside the US, or others who will do their job for them.

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s.b.:

Yeah we are all racist and stupid because we wonder why all other Presidents have their complete medical background divulged to the US people, and Obama submits a one page letter saying he is healthy.

I don't know what he is hiding, maybe an STD in college, maybe the fact that he is a smoker, maybe past treatement for drug addiction, maybe where he was born (unlikely). However, I am absolutely 100% sure that he is hiding something, chose what ever you choose to believe given bits of info you can gather elsewhere.

You see when you hide things, or suppress them people know and they speculate. It's absolutely legitimate.

So when Mr. Obama is vetted and provides full details of his birth, residency, citizenship, background, education, travels and health history to the press and the American people, we can all stop speculating.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"unlike most Americans, he does seem to lack many o fthe confirmations of place of birth (photos, doctor names, orig. birth certificate, corroborating family members, etc.) that most people have."

This is ridiculous. I'm a historian and I have trouble finding birth records for all kinds of people. The original is often lost, especially in counties that used to be small. Some counties change their record keeping, there are fires, etc... For one article I was searching a lady from a town in MS born circa 1942. Found original marriage certificate from 1965, but no original birth cert. It was a small county, but not extremely small. The courthouse had a reproduction. I had written and verbal testimony she was born there, school records, h.s. yearbook etc... So should I have concluded she was not born in America?

Earlier than that and there are tons of problems with official records of that nature. A lot of people didn't get their birth certificates until adulthood, so obviously they weren't original.

Obama has the HI certified birth certificate and 2 birth announcements in HI newspapers, and also corroborating testimony. That is more than enough evidence.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"I'm perplexed by the articles final question: "So what can be done?" It presumes that it is the govermnet's or MIT's or someone's responsibility to "fix" the American public."

The American public used to think that Indians, Jews, Blacks, and basically any minority you can think of were inferior and that a woman's place was in the kitchen. It wasn't that long ago, a few decades. Some still think that way.

Yes, it took educational institutions using facts and data to prove said inferiority incorrect (although many had used data to reinforce it), and government making laws to prevent abuse due to that sense of superiority.

If the people believe something that is straight up wrong, what should we do? Just allow it to continue because "the American people's" opinion is sacrosanct? Have you ever read the federalist papers at all? Republicans talk about "going back to the constitution," yet are all too willing to give in to the immediate passions of the people when on their side, the very outcome the founders created the constitution to avoid! (changing laws because of armed mobs' demands, as was happening in MA in 1786).

It's amazing to me how willingly today republicans wrap themselves in the flag of public opinion now that it's on their side. In not too long, it will turn against you, you'll be talking about principles again and how not to govern by polls.

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Bukama:

Aaron,

Obama was born in 1961, and if someone told me there was a fire that burned up his original birth certificate, I could accept that. But that hasn't been reported. We don't even know what delivered him (someone could tell us he wasn't born in a hospital - but instead, all we have is silence on the details). As you say, you could find corroberating details in yearbooks or family members when researching a person's background. But none of this has been done for Obama. His parents are dead - and the grandparents who raised him are dead. There are no photos from the hospital. There have been at least two hospitals named as the possible birth place.

This isn't like we're researching someone born in the 19th Century - there were lots of records in the 1960s. The birth announcements are some evidence, but I was born in NY, and my grandparents in Germany printed a birth announcement in Germany (for their friends to see).

The strongest evidence is that Hawaii has certified (long after the fact) that he was born in Hawaii. I don't buy into conspiracies, so I accept that at face value - I have no reason to think Obama was not born in Hawaii. But you must admit that the evidence of where Obama was born is a lot less in quantity than most (not all) people born in the 60s in the USA have. And since I don't approve of Obama's politics, I can simply note that I don't know for certainty where Obama was born. I wouldn't challenge his presidency on that account, but I am disinclined to gove Obama any benefit of the doubt.

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boomer40:

By all means, I hope all the birthers out there keep trying to justify this bizarre conspiracy theory to yourselves in a public forum. For the 75% of us not living in a fantasy world it's great entertainment.

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Ptolemy:

Obama's original birth certificate exists, as confirmed by numerous news stories:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-07-27-obama-hawaii_n.htm
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/2010/08/08/2010-08-08_could_birther_movement_be_dead_hawaii_getting_fewer_requests_for_obama_birth_cer.html

The original document was not lost or destroyed. The question is, why has Obama prevented it from being seen by the public? What is he hiding? People might be expected to speculate when faced with such secretiveness...

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Why is it terribly surprising that there may be a correlation between disapproval of someone and the willingness to believe negative propositions about them - or the reverse?

As for correcting false beliefs, if it is important to Obama that others think of him as a Christian, he might want to attend church or occasionally talk about his faith. The only evidence most folks have that Obama is a Christian is his attendance at the Rev. Jeremiah's Wright's black liberation church in Chicago. Because Wright is a raving racist nutcase, Team Obama tried to disavow him.

If it is important to Obama that folks believe he was born in Hawaii, he need only release the long form birth certificate and tell folks the location he was born. A simple press release would do.

If it is important to Obama that folks believe that the Obamacare legislation does not include a "death panel" deciding what treatment Medicare folks will be allowed, he never should have created the Independent Medicare Advisory Board in sections 3403 & 10320 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which does precisely that.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"The question is, why has Obama prevented it from being seen by the public? What is he hiding? People might be expected to speculate when faced with such secretiveness..."

Why doesn't Obama release all his tax records going back to age 18? (In TX Rick Perry is demanding almost 20 years worth of Bill White's tax returns to agree to debate)

Why doesn't Obama release his health records going back the same amount of time?

What about his nutritional habits from 14 years ago? Maybe vacation photos?

He doesn't give in to the birthers demands because it would give them legitimacy and show that they can force his hand.

There were many, many records the Bushes withheld, Clinton, Reagan, etc... Some of it is nat'l security related. Since the JFK assassination, presidents' papers have become more and more guarded. After 25 years, most of it should be available, although there are still records that the gov't will not release even from the FDR administration (ran into this problem when researching a labor leader).

I'd like to see his honors thesis and stuff like that too... I imagine it will be available in his library after a few decades. Most of the Clinton documents are still under lock and key, as are many of Reagan's. Carter's are for the most part open now.

But the way they claim "nat'l security" on so many records now it's likely to be half a century after a president leaves office before enough records are opened to fully examine them.

People decades from now will be laughing about the way we obsessed over Obama's birthplace.

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CompCon:

"almost 20 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that President Obama is a Muslim, and another 43 percent cannot identify his religion."

Who are you arrogant liberals to decide what is true or false a mistake or the truth about Obama's religion. There is only one person in the world that truly knows what religion he is - Obama himself. And in order to believe he is not a muslim, you have to trust him. People who know that he rarely ever tells the truth about anything question his honesty on this as well.

You "journalists" and "analysts" who talk about people "mistakenly" thinking Obama is muslim don't have a clue if it is a mistake or if he is a liar. We know you believe everything he says, but most people don't.

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Aaron_in_TX:

"People who know that he rarely ever tells the truth about anything question his honesty on this as well."

Obama lies and tells half-truths at about the same rate as any politician.

Before Obama, republicans were talking about Hillary Clinton's problems with the truth, which were considerable. She was the queen of liars. Now Obama is the king. There is no democrat you would trust. Period. All of this birther b.s. is just a example of the heightened partisanship of our era.

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EJ:

let's make it perfectly clear that Richard M. Nixon was the Ruler of the Universe when it came to political lying. Ronald Reagan just made what happened in the movies into history.

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