In an column published yesterday by the New York Times Ross Douthat aruges we shouldn’t take outlandish conclusions from polls seriously. He cites the recent Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes poll* showing that 24% of Americans don’t think Obama was born in the US. He writes that this number is misleading because many Americans are ignorant—they are unaware of law or geography, therefore the number does not encompass the majority of Americans’ beliefs.
While he may be correct on some of his assumptions, I think he misses the bigger picture. This isn’t about the public’s IQ or common sense. The fact that some Americans don’t believe Hawaii is a state is not only important for us to know (proof that we need more funding for our schools) but it is also a factor in shaping public opinion. Their opinion is just as valid as Douthat’s or mine and the ballot box certainly doesn’t discriminate between us. The voter who doesn’t know that Hawaii is a state may be more easily persuaded by Birthers that Obama isn’t lawfully the President than someone who does know that Hawaii is a state. While there may be some grain of truth in Douthat’s assumption that conspiracy theorists have high IQ and low common sense, it doesn’t mean that their followers do.
This isn’t about the public’s IQ or common sense it is about the pollster IQ and common sense. It is about asking smart questions that unfold many of the nuances in the American public perception. Douthat used our poll to prove his point and I am going to use it to prove mine.
The question in the Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes didn’t extract many facts and was poorly worded. It could have been confusing to someone who doesn’t know their geography. It asked one question forcing respondents to not only know that the President was born in Hawaii but that Hawaii is part of the United States. While that may seem fair—remember a year ago 6% of Americans didn’t know Hawaii was part of the US and 4% were unsure.
PPP however asked several simple questions that helped us discover why people may think Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. By asking more then one question and using crosstabs we were able to account for those who don’t know their geography, but still believe in the President was born in U.S. If a respondent didn’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. we then asked follow up questions, allowing us to gather more information and have better more accurate results.
Crosstabs can often tell us more about the public than the mere question. It is not simply the singular question that matters but the series of questions that counts in drawing conclusions. Broadly both polls had similar results: PPP found that 62% of Americans believe Obama was born in the U.S., 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair found 63% (ours was taken almost a year ago so our data is old). But when you look deeper into the results at crosstabs you’ll find differences.
By looking at our crosstabs PPP is able to tell that 14% of Americans, who don’t believe Obama was born in the US, don’t know Hawaii is part of the Union. 64% of those who don't think Hawaii is a state don’t believe Obama was born in the United States. Vanity Fair/60 Minutes’ poll assumed that people knew that Hawaii was in the US—many of those who answered Hawaii could have meant another country.
PPP’s poll asked respondents if they supported Obama. By looking at the crosstab of those who disapprove of Obama and are skeptical or don’t believe Obama lives in US, we are likely to discover the “Birther” group amongst us. A year ago 79% of those who are convinced he wasn’t born here and 67% of those who are unsure disapprove of Obama. While more questions would be needed to guarantee these voters believed this (like civics questions), I wouldn’t consider the others who don’t know where Obama was born “Birthers.”
CBS’s Brian Montopoli disagrees, he wrote that according to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll, one in three “Birthers” approve of the president’s job performance. He incorrectly defines “Birthers” as those who simply believe the president wasn’t born in the United States. As we have discovered through our polls some Americans don’t know geography or civics, they aren’t necessarily part of the “Birther” movement. The Birther movement is a group who believes the Obama is unlawfully President because he wasn’t born in the United States. In this case I agree with Douthat, this is using polling data to jump to outlandish conclusions.
While 60 Minutes speculates if it was the success of “right wing conspiracy” or the failure of our “academic instruction,” we at Public Policy Polling may be closer to having the answers.
A quality of a poll can often be found in the quality of the questions. We shouldn’t discount people’s opinions but polls that don't capture them well. Polling is about asking questions that everyone can answer. Polls are simply a form of data collecting. The respondent shouldn’t be forced to do the work, the pollster should.
(*The Vanity Fair/60 Minutes question was posted differently on their respective website pages, CBS does not typically publish all of their polling data. This analysis is based on the information that was available to the public.)