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Scott Walker’s view of Obama’s religion makes him a moderate

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participates in the opening session of the National Governors Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

When Wisconsin Gov. and top-tier GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker was recently asked whether Barack Obama is a Christian, he famously responded “I don’t know.” This provoked no small kerfuffle.

But here’s the interesting thing: Walker’s statement actually places him in the moderate wing of the Republican Party.  Indeed, saying “I don’t know” puts Walker not far from the average American, period.

In a survey I conducted in the fall of 2014, I asked this question: “Which of these do you think most likely describes what Obama believes deep down? Muslim, Christian, atheist, spiritual, or I don’t know.” Here are the results, broken down by party:

Even many Democrats weren’t taking Obama at his word. Only 45 percent chose “Christian,”  while 17 percent said “spiritual,” 10 percent said “Muslim,” and 26 percent said they didn’t know.

Overall, 60 percent of respondents chose either Walker’s answer or “Muslim.”

The percentage selecting “Muslim” is notably higher than in other polls conducted on this topic. This difference likely depends on how the question is phrased.

Previous survey questions about Obama’s religion tend to sound like a pop quiz — such as “do you happen to know the religious faith of Barack Obama?” But by asking “what Obama believes deep down?” I was intentionally granting respondents license to stray from the president’s self-reported Christian faith. This reveals a prevalent willingness to distrust this president or categorize him as “the other” in terms of religion.

Of course, respondents could also be “cheerleading” — using a survey question to express their general dislike of Obama rather than a genuine view about his religious faith.

But, if these results were largely driven by anti-Obama cheerleading, we should expect more respondents, especially Republicans, to choose the very unpopular category of “atheist.” Relatively few do so.

If the Republican primary electorate even roughly resembles this sample, one can see that answering questions about Obama rumors, myths and conspiracy theories is a tricky proposition for national Republican politicians.

On the one hand, there is the temptation to satisfy a Republican base that wants to hear attacks on Obama and to draw praise from conservative opinion leaders critical of the mainstream media.

On the other hand, Republican candidates risk scorn from and even being pathologized by the media and maybe alienating some more moderate voters they might need in a general election.

But it should be pointed out that 25 percent and 47 percent of independents in my survey answered “Muslim” and “I don’t know,” respectively, when asked about Obama’s beliefs. So, it is not entirely clear that Walker is straying far from even the average “swing” voter on this matter.

Some have suggested that Walker’s comments were not in his strategic best interest, and perhaps that would be true if he were jumping directly to the general election. But if Walker wants to position himself to the right of Jeb Bush, he might reasonably worry that “taking Obama at his word” would imperil his conservative bona fides.

In that case, Walker may have actually put forward the most moderate answer that his strategic goals would allow, even if the initial question was one that he, and others in his position, might prefer to skip.

Alex Theodoridis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced.

Note: The survey was conducted as part of the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.  The CCES was conducted by the survey firm YouGov in two waves in October and November of 2014.  The sampling frame was American adults and the sample size for this particular question about Obama’s religion was 1,000.  Respondents were interviewed on-line.  Further information about the YouGov sampling methodology is here, here, and here.