Thursday, August 19, 2010

Public Opinion and Misinformation

In our public opinion chapter, we note that survey respondents often know little about politics and have mistaken ideas about current events. More than a year and a half into the Obama administration, for instance, many people are still misinformed about the president. Although he has long been a member of the United Church of Christ, a substantial number think he is a Muslim. A Time poll asked: "Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?" It got these results:

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

The president was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961. (See documentation here.) But a CNN poll found that many think otherwise:

Do you think Barack Obama was definitely born in the United States, probably born in the United States, probably born in another country, or definitely born in another country?

  • Definitely born in U.S. 42%
  • Probably born in the U.S. 29%
  • Probably born in another country 16%
  • Definitely born in another country 11%
  • No opinion 2%

Public Policy Polling asked a similar question, but drew out sobering details about the state of public knowledge:

After we conducted polls over the last couple of weeks finding significant numbers of 'birthers' in North Carolina and Virginia, we decided to take the question national but also drum down more specifically on where exactly the people who think Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States do think he's from.

The answer is that 62% of Americans think Obama was born here, while 24% think he was not and 14% are unsure.

10% of the country thinks that he was born in Indonesia, 7% think he was born in Kenya, and 1% think he was born in the Philippines.

That leaves 20%, which includes at least some people who correctly believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but who don't consider Hawaii to be part of the United States. You read that right- 6% of poll respondents think that Hawaii is not part of the country and 4% are unsure.

Ross Douthat of The New York Times concluded:

This is an entirely typical result: Large percentages of Americans, poll after poll suggests, don’t know what seem like basic facts about their country and the world. This isn’t a right-wing or left-wing phenomenon; like conspiracy theories, ignorance about public affairs cuts across party lines. And it isn’t even necessarily a devastating indictment of American culture: The fact that 31 percent of the country couldn’t identify Dick Cheney as the vice president in 2007 suggests a certain ignorance about important national issues, but also, perhaps, a healthy detachment from politics and public affairs, and a salutary focus on the private sphere instead.

What it definitely suggests, to return to where I began, is that shock polls showing that some percentage of Americans believe some utterly crazy thing shouldn’t be taken all that seriously as barometers of the national mood.