The liberal end of the Internet is aflame with this news out of a PPP poll today: More than half of all Republicans believes President Obama is a Muslim!
The poll is just the latest evidence, liberals insist, of a virulent strain of racism — or, at minimum, a fundamental otherness — directed at Obama by the GOP. And now it's a majority opinion within the Republican party!
Except that it's probably not.
(Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: Yes, there are people who absolutely believe Obama is a Muslim with a secret plot to destroy America from the inside out. Yes, those people tend to identify as Republicans. My point below is not to say no one in the GOP misidentifies Obama's religion, but rather that the PPP findings are almost certainly overstated.)
Let's start with this: PPP, which stands for Public Policy Polling, is a Democratic polling outfit. They conduct their polls by IVR (Interactive Voice Response), which is a just a fancy term for saying it's an automated operation. No live operators are involved in the polling call; instead, you simply punch in a series of choices via the buttons on your phone. This is not inherently bad.
Okay, now to the data itself.
It's no secret that the public is deeply divided about Obama as he enters the final year of his presidency. Democrats generally like him. Republicans, almost uniformly, do not. So when Republicans — and this PPP poll asked only Republicans the Muslim question — are given the chance to say something negative (or even untrue) about Obama, they will take it.
Remember back in February, when almost seven in 10 Republicans in an online YouGov poll said that Obama doesn't love America? What we wrote then still holds true today: It's easy to get people who already don't like someone to say or believe something bad about them. Some of those people truly hold those beliefs; most of the others are really just saying "I don't like Obama."
That is, of course, not super newsy. Nor is it attention grabbing. (The headline of the PPP release on the poll was "Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country.")
Then there is how the question is asked. Here's how PPP's Muslim question reads: "Do you think Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim, or are you not sure?" The options provided — and remember, those options are represented by pushing "1", "2" or "3" on your phone keypad — are "Christian," "Muslim" and "Not sure."
Compare that to the wording used by Pew on a very similar question: "Now, thinking about Barack Obama's religious beliefs. ... Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?"
Here are the results from that question:
Yes, there are a decent number of GOPers who say that Obama is a Muslim. But when presented with LOTS of options — Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu etc. — the number of Republicans who say Obama is a Muslim is FAR less than a majority.
None of the above is meant to discount the fact that there exists a strain of thinking primarily prevalent in the GOP that views Obama as exotic and different — and not in a good way. My only point is that by using poll numbers like these from PPP, we over-simplify negative views of Obama and, in so doing, dumb down a national political conversation that is on shaky ground as it is.