Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hey, Reporters! (Birther Edition)

Today's big news...no, that's not quite right. Today's hot gossip? Oh, I don't know: birthers are back in the news, because of a new poll showing that they're everywhere, or at least that they appear to be an actual majority of Republicans.

This has been going on for years now, and I certainly don't read far into every birther story, but unless I've missed something I still think that this is actually an underreported and underexplored thing. Basically, I know how Republicans respond to the question "Do you think Barack Obama was born in the United States?" But I have no idea what those who answer "no" or "don't know" are thinking. It seems to me there are a number of possibilities, with some really alarming and others much less so. And I would love to see either pollsters or reporters help us understand exactly what's going on, how many people fit in the following categories:

1. Some birthers may go whole hog. Perhaps they believe that there was a massive, 50 year long conspiracy to develop a front for a true socialist/communist/whatever takeover of the government. The birth story matters because it reveals that he's just a guy who reads a teleprompter, while other nefarious characters are really governing -- or some other wild story.

2. Not quite whole hog. Some may be vaguely aware that there's some sort of supposed conspiracy, but not really know much about it. They may believe that he was born abroad, that he's therefore not qualified for the presidency, and that the conspiracy is about allowing him to run when otherwise the Dems would have put up someone else. This (probably?) puts Obama, and not other hidden conspirators, at the center of the operation. Note that this is a much milder accusation, at least possibly; it implies that Obama is overly ambitious (uppity?), but that's about it.

3. It's possible, and in my opinion likely, that some are even more vaguely aware of the birther thing at all, and mistakenly believe that the guy with the funny name was born abroad -- but don't know that it's a controversial accusation with serious consequences were it true. In other words, they think it's just a curious fact about him, just like people thought that Bill Clinton was born rich or that Gerald Ford was clumsy. For them, there's no conspiracy (because they're not even aware anyone denies it) and no constitutional importance. Do most people know that one must be a native-born American to be president? I have no idea! Based on traditional polling that shows people don't know the Bill of Rights, or other fundamental Constitutional facts, I pretty much doubt it. I have no idea of how many people fit into this category, but I'd be shocked if it was below 5%, and I wouldn't be surprised if half or more supposed birthers are in this essentially oblivious but innocent category.

4. Gotta include the most innocent of all: it's Hawaii. This one would be very small, but again it may include at least some people: they know he was born in Hawaii but believe that means he was not born in the United States. Again, in combination with #3, there's no conspiracy, no Constitutional issue, just some scattered misinformation.

5. It's a gag -- at the elite level presumably no one really believes this stuff, and somehow that's filtered down to the rank-and-file level. They've learned how to answer the question, but they don't "really" believe any of it.

Those are the main possibilities that I can think of, but I may be missing some, and certainly the first two have various different permutations and implications.

Basically, every interpretation I've seen of crazed polling numbers implies that all birthers must fall into the top two categories, except for elites who fit comfortably into the fifth category. That could be true. On the other hand, maybe not. Again, unless I've missed something, we really have no idea. I have seen some interviews with Tea Party activists who believe the crazier, most conspiratorial versions of this, but that's hardly a random sample (they seem to be the result of reporters who show up at Tea Party rallies and then seek out the nuttier-looking types). Hey, reporters! If we're going to talk about this all the time, let's get a much better sense of what's in the heads of those who give birther answers to polling questions.


  1. Hm. I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the vast majority of poll respondents to this poll know that (1) the president must be a natural-born citizen of the U.S.; and (2) Hawaii is part of the U.S.

    Remember, this was a poll of likely GOP primary voters, not just random Americans. These are relatively politically-aware, Fox-News-watching, party-loyal types. Frankly, it would shock me if the people who fit into category (3) above make up even one percent of birthers.

  2. Andrew,

    First off, it isn't a poll of likely GOP primary voters but a poll of regular republican voters. There's a big difference.

    John, the reason why the number is so high is because conservative Republicans are just talking trash. In a sense, we are mocking the pollster for even asking the question. We're just having some fun.

    Look at it this way. If you post the question about the parentage of Palin's kid Trig, you'd probably get 40% of Democrats who answer no or don't know (and I bet you'd get a majority of African-American Democrats to answer that she's not Trig's mother).

    The actual percentage who believes he's not a citizen or she's not the mother is a lot lower but some people love talking smack about someone they hate and are willing to tell a pollster something they don't believe if they believe it will embarrass someone they hate.

  3. Related to point five, there are plenty of folks who would give all sorts of crazy answers, as long as it reflected negatively on Obama. You could ask if the respondents believed Obama loved his daughters, and a solid number of people would answer no. They don't actually believe it, but they'll say they do just to damage the President.

  4. I think it is almost certainly number 3.

    Remember the rationale behind Miranda was the reality that the Court found it offensive to the cause of justice if the accused didn't even know their rights.

    If people didn't know that they had a right to counsel or a right not to incriminate themselves, I think it is highly unlikely must people are aware of the Constitutional requirements for the President.

  5. It's really not polls like this that disturb me the most. After all, if I recall correctly, there were polls in the mid-2000s showing a majority (or at least a large portion) of Democrats who were 9/11 truthers.

    What disturbs me much more is that several Congressmen are getting into this garbage, that state legislators are trying to get Obama thrown off the ballot, and most of all that GOP leaders like Boehner, McConnell, and Cantor are making dogwhistles to the movement. I never saw anything like this on the Democratic side even in the heyday of trutherism; people like Cynthia McKinney were basically laughed off the national stage, whereas birthers are being openly embraced by GOP and conservative leadership.

  6. The birther thing is pretty easy to understand. I'm short on citations at the moment, but I've seen "empirical" evidence that about 20 percent of the population are "virulently" anti-obama. The evidence comes from various polls, although I remember one focus group in the South conducted by a firm with Carville connections (??) that showed the same thing.

    There are probably a bunch of factors influencing their opposition: ideological, cultural, party affiliation, racial, whatever. People in the olde focus group made comments similar to those in the Fox/Luntz focus group from the past week or so. Obama's a Muslim. He's a Socialist. He wasn't born in this country, etc., etc.

    In my view, these are all merely epithets. They don't like or support him for a variety of reasons and so they call him names. The names change to meet circumstances. They don't need to be taken literally. They're just labels, names, epithets.

    Back in the day, one kid my tell another kid that his mama wore combat boots. Probably wasn't meant literally. Calling someone a "MF" doesn't mean literally. The idea is to sting, hurt, enrage, destabilize, provoke.

    Which isn't to say there isn't something more malevolent going on. We have political leaders quite willing to look the other way, or even openly encourage this kind of talk. And it fits in with the need to demonize the opposition and to simply make stuff up to engage/enrage their political base. Not that that's a new phenomenon.

  7. @ Anonymous 3:35

    it isn't a poll of likely GOP primary voters but a poll of regular republican voters

    Wrong. It's likely GOP primary voters.

  8. The truther polls you're quoting are misleading as well. There is an attempt to conflate two groups: people who thought 9/11 was a government operation (the truly crazy and a very small percent) and people who thought that Bush knew that an airplane hijacking was imminent but did nothing about it (which is much more reasonable criticism - although I believe still unfair). Don't fall for it, there was never ever even a moderate percentage of democrats that believed that the government blew up the world trade centers.

  9. I think you are more likely ignoring the real story.

    Obama is not african. He is Indonesian, pretending to be black to gain political support. As a devout Indonesian Muslim, he and his secret supporters are trying to turn the country into an extension of the Caliphate.

  10. I think Kal and bbebop are on the right track here. There are obviously hardcore birthers in the GOP -- but this is mostly just an example of the “screw you” partisanship that’s become all too common today.

  11. I think Anonymous 5:04pm is right.

  12. I'm going to say that the comments (so far) are evidence in favor of my point: we don't know, and it would be nice to find out.

  13. Anon@5:04 = weird.

    So, you birthers have moved on from saying Obama was born in Kenya? Yeah, "Hussein" is an all-purpose name; it's such an accurate indication of where someone was born.


  14. Every time another question is added to a poll the cost goes up. Polls rarely explore what people think in any depth. If someone wants to pay for such a poll, I could think of many more interesting issues than birtherism.

    I voted for Obama, but many would call me a 'birther'. I think there must be a reason that Obama has been unwilling to open his original birth certificate to public examination. I would answer 'I don't know' to the question of where he was born.

    Once a reporter asked Robert Gibbs why Obama wouldn't release the document, and his answer amounted to 'because he doesn't have to.'

  15. Anonymous said: "some people love talking smack about someone they hate and are willing to tell a pollster something they don't believe if they believe it will embarrass someone they hate." I do find that to be a fascinating response. This doesn't embarrass Obama. This embarrasses republicans. It rightly makes them the subject of ridicule.

    I understand that the highest calling for many on the right is to poke liberals in the eye with a sharp stick at every opportunity, but this doesn't make us angry, this makes us laugh at you. Like Palin, it is a joke.

    A more interesting question for me is "How many of the 70% of republicans who say they only watch Fox for "news" actually do." And, if it is actually that high, then why do the TV ratings show a much smaller audience than that.

  16. Birtherism is the shortest distance between two points -- Obama and the White House gates.

    All we need is one good lawsuit, and the Supreme Court can once again rescue our Republic from the consequences of its irrational insistence on elections.

  17. WNVG,

    Actually, you guys aren't laughing. You claim to be laughing but then your side expressses outrage at the results.

    Trust me, when someone eventually polls the "Is Palin Trig's mother" question and it shows that a majority of African-American Democrats believe the answer is no or undecided, you'll have a different reaction.

  18. Anonymous, here's Charles Johnson, one-time right wing blogger, who bailed on the movement when it went nuts: "It’s official: the loons really have taken over the GOP."

    Johnson is still conservative. He simply decided a couple of years ago that he was not willing to be a fruitcake. And now he writes about the movement with the deep understanding of an insider who got out. This was a very good recent post:
    ""Persecution politics" is an excellent way to frame what's happening in the GOP and the right wing these days, and I'd like to bring up another important factor that helps make persecution politics such an effective defense mechanism: tribalism. Not just the atavistic racist tribalism of a small section of the far right base, but a new kind of widespread mainstream tribalism enabled by modern technologies."


  19. "Actually, you guys aren't laughing. You claim to be laughing but then your side expressses outrage at the results."

    No, I'm pretty sure I know what my thoughts about this news are far better than you do, and they are pretty much mocking...well, "derision" is too strong, but something like that.

    Some liberals, I'm sure, disagree. And I'm sure many of the ones who are outraged (or can suitable feign outrage) have platforms from which to express their outrage ('cause let's face it, outrage sells). But don't confuse their opinions for the opinions of all- or even most!- of liberal, or leftists, or whoever "you guys" are in this case.

  20. You citing Charles Johnson is akin to me citing Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen.

    Obviously, liberals regard the two guys as jokes even though both are Democrats. Am I right that you don't take Schoen and Caddell too seriously? Or how about Greta Van Susteren?

    In other words, Charles Johnson to us is what Caddell/Schoen are for you. They'll tell you that you guys are the ones who have taken the party too far to the left.

  21. (6) Not everybody feels the need to be particularly honest or thoughtful when talking to pollsters. Birtherism resonates because it is an extreme expression of some widely held Conservative anxieties--namely, that Obama is scary because he is Not One Of Us (black, Muslim antecedents, Northern liberal, cosmopolitan, etc). The question that is actually being answered is "how do you feel about Obama?" Big surprise, activist Republicans really hate and fear him.

  22. The PPP didn't provide regional breakdowns on the birther question (or anything else). I'd be interested in seeing these - I remember a poll from a year or so ago that showed that belief in birtherism (or maybe it was the Muslim libel - same difference) was overwhelmingly a Southern phenomenon. Like, maybe 5% in the Northeast, 5% in the Midwest, 5% in the West, and 60% in the South. Wonder if those shares have shifted, & if so how.

  23. Last night on AC360 I learned that some birthers want to retroactiverly change the definition of natural born to mean only people who have two natural born parents. Several past presidents would now be ineligible to have held the office. And many Americans would suddenly realize they're not natural born citizens either.

  24. 6. When a pollster calls up and gives someone a chance either to say something bad about a politician they dislike or not, a good number of folks are going to take the opportunity to register their dislike of the guy even if they don't really believe the specific "charge" being polled. (I hope to God this is what was happening with all those polls saying so many Dems thought that Bush knew in advance about the September 11th attacks.)

  25. @Anon, multiple:

    I don't think your Trig analogy is a good one for the point you're trying to make. First, relatively few people, even those who follow politics closely, are aware that anyone has suggested Sarah isn't Trig's mother. To the extent liberal leadership has any thoughts on this at all, my sense is most people think Andrew Sullivan needlessly damaged his credibility by chasing down that rabbit hole.

    By contrast, everyone is at least vaguely aware that Obama has been accused of being born in Kenya. Moreover, if true, the Obama birther rumors would have stark policy implications: the current President of the United States would be serving illegally. If Bristol or someone else were Trig's mother, it would have no policy implications whatsoever. The 9/11 truther stuff is a much better comparison although it is flawed for reasons illustrated above and many more.

  26. Obama did release the official Hawaiian certificate of live birth. It's the same thing I use, and my kid uses, to get a passport.

    End of story. Case closed. There's no there there.

  27. >First, relatively few people, even those who follow politics closely, are aware that anyone has suggested Sarah isn't Trig's mother.

    I agree. Most liberals I know, though they have no love lost for Sarah Palin, would look at you like you were insane if you suggested such a thing. Sullivan's own guest-bloggers have pretty much said he's off his rocker about this (and that's not to mention that he isn't really a liberal).

    I do agree, though, that polls like this tend to exaggerate the amount of true believers. It's a little like this cartoon: there's a natural tendency for people to go into absurd territory if prompted. If you polled Americans with the question "Is Barack Obama a Martian?" I'd wager you'd get a significant amount of respondents saying "Yes" and an even larger number saying "I don't know." I think there may even be a term for this effect in polling science.

  28. As I said over on the TNR posting ... I’ve followed the birthers since June 2008. I closely followed all 70+ birther cases nationwide and read every single birther pleading; I followed all the main “birther” websites and discussion forums and have followed all state “birther” legislation. With that background, I think the “birthers” (and those answering polls) can be fairly categorized as follows:
    1. The “It’s a Conspiracy” Birthers. These birthers believe that there has been a massive cover-up. They believe it started in the mid-2000s or possibly earlier, but they do not, by the way, believe that there was a 50-year conspiracy. E.g., they don’t believe that the HI birth announcements were planted 50 years ago. They believe that the birth announcements are FAKE – that they were inserted into the microfiche of the newspapers around 2007 or so. The theory goes that “experts” have examined the microfiche at multiple US libraries and every single set of microfiche shows signs of tampering.) These birthers, like 9/11 conspiracists, have an ever growing list of “evidence” to prove the conspiracy. As noted above, they believe that the HI birth announcements are fake and were planted in the 2000s. They believe that the COLB is fake (and that FactCheck.og conspired with Obama to dispel the doubters). They believed (and some still do) that the two demonstrably fake “Kenyan Birth Certificates” are real. They believe the edited tape of Obama’s grandmother (edited to say that he was born in Kenya) is real and that the full tape (showing she didn’t say that) is a fake. They believe that Lolo Soetoro adopted Obama as a child, making him an Indonesian citizen. They believe that he went to college as a foreign (Indonesian) citizen. They believe that the Obama administration has “intimidated” federal judges to dismiss the birther cases and that Obama has spent millions of dollars to hide his records. Every month or so, someone makes a new “BREAKING” discovery related to the conspiracy. Some of their theories directly contradict each other – and birther claims. (For example, one theory is that the reason Obama is “hiding” his real birth certificate is because it shows that Frank Marshall Davis is his father. Never mind that that would make him a US citizen regardless of where he was born ...) And, just as one “conspiracy” gets debunked, they come up with another one. For example, in 2009, just as it became clear that one of the “Kenyan” birth certificates was a fake, another one appeared and these birther set out to prove that it was real.

  29. .. continued ..
    2. The “He’s gotta be hiding SOMETHING” Birthers. These birthers don’t necessarily believe all – or any – of the various conspiracies. but they don’t trust Obama at all and they just can’t understand why “Obama keeps hiding all his records.” If he was born in Hawaii, why not just produce the original birth certificate, they ask. They believe (incorrectly) that he’s spent “millions of dollars” to seal his records and the fact that he “just won’t produce” it makes them believe that there’s something wrong with it.
    If and when a state passes a birther bill requiring submission of a certified Certificate of Live Birth, and when Obama produces his (as he will, if required), these birthers will be satisfied that he was born in the U.S. But – they still won’t trust him and they still won’t like him. They’ll still believe that he’s hiding SOMETHING.

  30. ... continued ...
    3. The “Constitutionalist Birthers.” These are the most under reported group – and, I believe, have made up the largest percentage of birthers for about a year now. (To be sure, many “Constitutionalist Birthers” also believe that “he’s gotta be hiding something” – but they do not believe all the various conspiracies, and generally do not believe he was born in Kenya or became an Indonesian citizen.)

    In brief, these birthers have co-opted Tea Party calls to return to “constitutionalism” (obviously, as they define it). According to these birthers, the term “Natural Born Citizen” as used in the Constitution meant that the President must be born in the US – to US citizens. They contend that at the time of the Constitution, the applicable “rule” of citizenship was that one obtained their citizenship from their parents. They cite selected publications and selected pre-1898 case law to support their argument that “Natural Born Citizen” means born in US to US parents.
    Based on that principle, their argument is, essentially, as follows: (1) Although Obama was born in Hawaii, he is not eligible to be President because he is not a “Natural Born Citizen.” (2) He is not a natural born citizen because he was born a UK citizen. (3) Under UK law at the time of his birth, a child born to a UK citizen was a UK citizen, even if born elsewhere. (4) Therefore, Obama was a UK citizen at birth. (5) Therefore Obama is not a “Natural Born Citizen.”

    The reality is that the “Constitutionalist” argument has dominated the birther legal cases for the past year. In fact, there were several birther cases that focused exclusively on this argument. This theory is very attractive to Tea Partiers because it has many parallels with (and borrows from) the Tea Party’s general anti-immigration stance. So – it fits within their general view that children born in the US to “foreigners” should not be US citizens. If you look at state legislation, you’ll find that the same representatives introducing “birther bills” are also introducing “no birthright citizenship” bills. And, if you look at state birther legislation, you’ll find that may (though admittedly not all) such bills contain this “Constitutionalist” component.

  31. ... continued ...

    And the reality also is (imho), that “Constitutionalist Birthers” now make up the largest percentage of birthers.

    So, although they do believe Obama was born in the US (or, at a minimum, don’t care where he was born), they respond to pollster questions on the issue by saying “no” – he wasn’t. Because the pollster’s not asking the “right” question for them – so the only way that they can respond to indicate that they don’t believe he’s eligible to be President is to say “yes” to the questions regarding place of birth.

    4. The “I hate Obama Birthers.” Similar to your “no one really believes this stuff” – category, there is a substantial group that just hates Obama. They don’t really believe any of this “stuff” (though they find the “Constitutionalist” argument very compelling), but they hate Obama and are willing to perpetuate the myth in the hopes of turning more people against Obama.
    If a pollster wants to understand the phenomenon of birtherism, s/he will craft a poll asking something like “Do you believe Obama is a Natural Born Citizen?” – with a follow-up series of questions as to why – to get to which particular theory the person has bought into. And for those who say they believe he was born in Kenya, a follow-up series of questions directed at the various theories relating to that claim.

    I strongly suspect that a “properly” phrased poll will show that the majority of birthers now are “Constitutionalist” Birthers and/or “He’s gotta be hiding something” birthers.


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