CNN released a poll showing 27% of Americans — and 41% of Republicans — say Pres. Obama was probably or definitely not born in the United States. This prompted the usual hand-wringing from some of the usual hand-wringers. The poll — or the persistence of such polls — may say more about the media and certain members of the chattering classes than it says about “birthers.”

The results of such polls are likely overstated. As Scoop Daily explained when the dKos/R2K birther poll was news:

[S]orry to rain on the parade — this poll isn’t such a good indicator of that phenomenon, from a survey research perspective. In fact its descriptive value of birtherism is nearly zero.

Remember, most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of this particular conspiracy theory (Lou Dobbs’s radio audience doesn’t exactly rival the NFL). I doubt 90% of the American population has ever given so much as a thought to Obama’s birth certificate, and for good reason. This is a tiny, lunatic fringe belief.

But if most people have never heard of the topic at hand, how do they answer questions about it? Public opinion research has shown consistently that survey takers almost never skip questions no matter how uninformed they are (and whether or not an option to say “I don’t know” is presented). As a rule, respondents just guess, using whatever contextual clues are available to them. They will reduce the question to analogies and terms they can relate to, which in survey research are called heuristics. So in this instance, a respondent unfamiliar with birtherism will parse the question roughly like:

Do you think Barack Obama (something basic to his character)?

And they will answer the question based on that heuristic. Now most people, regardless of their opinions of Obama politically, will probably grant at least that he’s a carbon-based lifeform with a verifiable lifestory, intellect, and conscience; but there’s a small hard core of conservatives who mistrust the President implicitly, and will either respond reflexively in the negative to anything whatsoever that involves him, or will consciously and forcefully express doubt about any available element of his humanity and honesty. (This is not dissimilar to the way many of us on the left readily argued that George W. Bush was both a coked-out fratboy moron and a nefarious scheming dictator-in-waiting, simultaneously.) Of course this group of snarling partisans is concentrated overwhelmingly in the Republican Party and in the areas where extreme to-the-bone conservatism is most socially acceptible, i.e. the South. That’s the source of these disproportionate “Not sure” and “No” responses.

It has almost nothing, then, to do with birtherism specifically. There’s no material difference between asking people “Do you think Obama was born in the U.S.?” and asking “Do you think Obama tips 15% and likes adorable baby animals?” Or perhaps “Do you think Obama is a werewolf?” You will get comparable results no matter what, perhaps minus the tiny proportion that actually knows and believes the birther theory (and I conjecture that those people would immediately be “werewolfers” too, given the opportunity).

Other examples would be the 2007 Rasmussen poll showing 35% of Democrats were “Truthers,” or the PPP poll showing similar numbers of Republicans and Dems would label Obama or Bush, respectively, as the Anti-Christ. Brendan Nyhan tends to reject heuristics as an explanation, and favors the theory that partisans double down when confronted with contrary information, but the studies cited in his academic paper of the subject produced mixed results. To the extent that the “backfire” theory is in play, it would seem more applicable to truthers (given the long and public investigation into the government’s pre-9/11 failures) than to the birth certificate question. As Steve Benen observes:

For what it’s worth, the reason poll results like these don’t force me into unreachable despair is that I’m not convinced those who are wrong necessarily understand the constitutional implications. For some of those who question the president’s birthplace, it may not matter whether Obama is a natural-born citizen (reality) or a naturalized citizen (fiction). For all I know, some folks find the whole bogus idea charming: “Isn’t America great? Someone can be born in another country, work hard, and eventually become president of the United States.”

Just so (CNN’s poll question gives no context, either). Accordingly, the more interesting question raised by such polls is why people keep conducting them.

In the case of birther polls, the answer is that it feeds the beliefs and biases of the paranoid center that dominates the establishment media. Based on the principles just mentioned, media outlets and bloggers fretting over birthers and exaggerating their numbers are either ignorant of the heuristics problem and (ironically) fill in their negative attitudes about the Right, or (per Nyhan) they know about the heuristics problem and are simply doubling down on their anti-Right bias.

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