Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two national polls have now indicated that large numbers of Americans believe the Birther conspiracy theory. But, is it possible that pollsters simply are asking the wrong questions?
Research 2000 found that 77% of Americans believe President Obama was born in the United States, 11% said no and 12% weren't sure. When Public Policy Polling asked, the numbers were 62% yes, 25% no and 14% unsure.
Despite those numbers, I'm still relatively optimistic that there aren't actually that many American conspiracy theorists. Public Policy Polling also asked respondents whether they consider Hawaii, where Obama was born, to be part of the United States. Ninety percent said yes, six percent said no and four percent weren't sure.
There are a few ways to interpret that Hawaii poll. One is that there actually are millions upon millions of Americans (6%-10% of us) who believe that those strange, foreign Hawaiians will never be part of their country, no matter what anyone else says. Another interpretation is that when a pollster asks a silly-sounding question, people tend to give silly-sounding answers. If you asked Americans whether they believed that Obama is an alien cyborg from the future, many of us would yes.
But, to me, the most persuasive explanation is that some people are just ignorant and don't know about Hawaii's status. I've seen enough polls where Americans can't name Supreme Court justices, can't name congressional leaders or don't know basic facts about their nation's history not to be surprised by results like that. Keeping in mind that some people are quite ignorant, I have a theory about the Birther poll results.
First, I'd guess that lots of American don't realize that you have to be a natural-born citizen to be president. I actually think that's a pretty safe assumption. Not knowing about a fairly obscure constitutional provision isn't anywhere near the head-slapping ignorance of not knowing Hawaii is a state. I don't think a lot of Americans go around wondering why Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jennifer Granholm haven't run for president.
Next, I have to wonder how many Americans don't know where the president was born (or think they know, but are wrong), not because they believe some conspiracy theory, but because they simply don't know. I doubt most Americans know that George W. Bush was born in Connecticut or that John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone.
If you only know that Obama's father was from Africa and his mother was from the United States, it would be easy to think he was born outside the United States, without being clued into the Birthers or knowing that his birthplace affects his eligibility to be president. Those people would look like Birthers in polls that ask where Obama was born, but the explanation for their believes would actually be quite benign.
I'm not sure my theory is right, but it would be easy to test. For one, a pollster could ask whether being a natural-born citizen is a legal requirement to be president. More directly, instead of asking about the president's place of birth, a pollster could ask Americans whether they think Obama is legally eligible to be president of the United States. Those who say yes to that truly are conspiracy theorists.
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