Polls have revealed what appears to be a rather shocking level of misinformation about the religion of President Obama among Republicans in some southern states. Leading up to the Republican primary in Alabama and Mississippi, polls conducted by Public Policy Polling showed that 45% of Republicans in Alabama and 52% of Republicans in Mississippi believed that President Obama is not Christian. The New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal largely dismissed the results because of how the polls were conducted (3/13/2012), and there is good reason for some skepticism. The polls in question were conducted over the course of two days (which limits the number of attempts to contact initially unreachable people), it only used land-line phones (which ignores the possibility that Republicans who only have cell phones might think differently), the polls were conducted using automated and computerized scripts rather than human interviewers, and the polls were done by a polling organization that is typically characterized as being “Democratic.”
Opinions regarding President Obama’s religion are more than a mere artifact of polling methods, however. Prior to Tennessee’s primary on Super Tuesday (3/6/2012), the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University conducted a scientifically rigorous poll of 1500 registered Tennessee voters using both landlines and cellphones conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. My Honors Seminar on “Predicting Elections” helped analyze the Vanderbilt Poll and when we looked at opinions regarding Obama’s religion, we found similar responses.
Overall, 24% of registered voters in Tennessee respond “Muslim” when asked: “do you hap-pen to know what President Obama’s religion is?” Among registered Republicans, however, the percentage increases to 38%. By comparing the pattern of responses on this question to other survey responses, we can try to infer what these opinions might mean.
One hypothesis is that most voters possess very little information about the personal histories of candidates and that the incorrect beliefs about Obama’s religion simply reflect this lack of information (combined with an unwillingness to say “don’t know”). To explore this possibility, we asked 6 factual questions regarding the Republican candidates, including: who was punished for ethics violations in the House, who has a bank account in the Cayman Islands, who was defeated in a Senate election, who had a 15% effective tax rate last year, who worked with Pelosi on global warming legislation, and who voted frequently for earmarks while in Congress.
Seemingly consistent with the voter ignorance hypothesis is the fact that most likely Republican primary voters know relatively little about the characteristics of the candidates they were going to be choosing between in the upcoming primary. 20% of registered Republican voters in Tennessee were unable or unwilling to provide a single correct answer to these six questions, and nearly 70% answered at most three questions correctly.
To see whether those that possess incorrect information about the Republican candidates are also the most likely incorrectly identify Obama’s religion reveals the somewhat unexpected result that the percentage of “Muslim” responses do not vary much based on how much the voter knew about the Republican candidates. The percentage answering “Muslim” is identical regardless of whether the respondent knew no correct answers or whether they knew four correct answers (38%). Even among the 18% of registered Republicans who correctly answered 5 or more questions correctly, 14% respond “Muslim” when asked about the President’s religion.
Looking at the relationship by the education level of the respondent – a trait that political scientists have often used to measure political awareness – also reveals a weak relation-ship. The percentage getting Obama’s religion wrong is 32% for those with less than a high school education, 38% for a high school education, 27% for some college education, and 18% for those who have more than a college education.
These relationships are not entirely consistent with people simply being too busy to bother learning about (or remembering) the personal details of politicians. A sizable percentage do not know Obama’s religion even among those who know the most about the Republican candidates and those who are the most educated.
What might be going on here? A speculative proposition that is not easily testable with the available data is that respondents are not thinking about the question as a factual question, but rather as a question about similarity. Put differently, those with a strong dislike for Obama may be unwilling to say that they share some common beliefs with the president and this may drive them to form and hold incorrect beliefs about his religion.
Those that are most opposed are also the most likely to hold incorrect beliefs. Among respondents who say they are members of the Tea Party movement, 43% believe he is a religion other than Protestant. Among those who self-identify as a “strong” Republican, the percentage is 40%. Given the relatively high rates of misinformation among these groups, it is possible that perhaps the errors are because policy disagreements are causing individuals to attribute characteristics to Obama that make him more dissimilar.
To further explore this possibility, we can predict the probability that an individual hold an incorrect belief about Obama’s religion con-trolling for: the education level of the respondent, how many questions out of 6 they got correct about the Republican candidates, and whether they self-identify as a strong Republican, a member of the Tea Party movement, or a “born-again” Christian. This allows us to com-pare the relative importance of each characteristic for explaining the variation in responses holding the effect of the other characteristics fixed.
Every one of these characteristics is related to the probability of holding an incorrect belief, but some effects are larger than others. All else equal, the difference between less than high school and more than college only makes individuals 7.5% less likely to hold an incorrect belief. Similarly, the difference between knowing 0/6 and 6/6 traits about the Republican candidate decreases the probability of an in-correct response by roughly 12%. In contrast, the difference that a “strong” Republican holds an incorrect belief relative to someone who is not is 12% holding all other characteristics fixed. Similarly, individuals belonging to the Tea Party movement are 14% more likely to hold incorrect beliefs. The largest effect, how-ever, is found among those who self-identify as “born-again.” Ceteris paribus, such respondents are 23% more likely to hold an incorrect belief. While this is certainly not definitive, it is suggestive in that the largest effects are based on ideological and political beliefs rather than characteristics that are commonly related to political awareness.
If beliefs about facts reflect political and ideological beliefs, this may raise troubling issues of larger normative concern. We typically think that reasoned debate and discourse occurs when individuals take facts as agreed upon truths and then proceed to debate what the facts might mean and imply about the world. If, however, agreement on the basic facts cannot be reached, reasoned discourse and debate may be difficult because of the lack of any agreement.
Facts should certainly be questioned to en-sure their validity, but if citizens and politicians cannot agree on the standards by which some-thing can be deemed to be true – i.e., if the de-termination of what is true and what is false is shaped by partisan or ideological perspectives — the discourse, debate, and compromise that is essential to representative government and which was envisioned by the Founding Fathers may be difficult to achieve.
While people are currently talking about Re-publicans and the opinions that they hold, it is important to emphasize that there is no reason to think that this type of motivated reasoning is limited to a single side of the ideological spectrum.
This article was written in the Spring of 2012 by Joshua D. Clinton, Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Dr. Clinton now serves as the faculty advisor for the Vanderbilt Political Review.