A poll of Louisiana Republicans released last week contained some strange news for President Obama: Twenty-nine percent of them said that he was responsible for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina — in 2005.
This was slightly more than the 28 percent who said President George W. Bush was to blame. An additional 44 percent thought it over but just weren’t sure.
This is a preposterous notion. Everybody knows Barack Obama couldn’t have been responsible for the Katrina response because he was in Indonesia in 2005, learning about his Muslim faith in a madrassa. He had moved to Indonesia directly from his home country of Kenya, stopping in the United States just long enough to fake the moon landing.
When I read a report about the poll on the Talking Points Memo Web site, the first thing that came to mind was the famous campaign-trail quotation from the man who actually was president in 2005: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning.”
Evidently, they is not, at least not in Louisiana. Yet ignorance alone does not account for this bizarre finding.
The Katrina result, from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, is somewhat suspect because it is from an automated, push-button polling method. Yet the finding, if unscientific, is revealing: It shows that a substantial number of Republican voters will agree to something they know to be false if it puts Obama in a bad light.
The Katrina question is consistent with the many surveys finding an appalling amount of misinformation embraced by the electorate. Seven in 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. One in five thought that Obama was Muslim. In another famous poll, Americans were three times more likely to be able to name two of the seven dwarfs than two Supreme Court justices.
Earlier this year, Public Policy Polling found disturbingly high levels of belief in UFOs and aliens, and the believers were bipartisan: Twenty-two percent of Mitt Romney voters said Obama was the Antichrist, and 13 percent of Obama voters said the government allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur.
But Obama’s presidency has provoked a particularly steep rise in the proportion of Republican conspiracy theorists. A Pew poll last year found that 30 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of conservative Republicans thought Obama was Muslim — roughly double than thought so four years earlier. Gallup polling in April 2011 found that 43 percent of Republicans thought Obama was born in another country.
Obama conspiracy theories have flourished in the Deep South, where wealth and educational levels are both low. This makes sense: Where voters are least informed, they are most susceptible to misinformation peddled by talk-radio hosts and the like.
For this reason, voters in reliably Republican states, which tend to be poorer, with lower test scores, are more vulnerable to misinformation. To use one measure, the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress test of eighth-grade reading, all but one of the top 10 states were in Obama’s column in 2012. Of the 19 doing worse than average, 14 were red states.
This is what makes the Katrina question so interesting. Certainly, Louisianans are on the low end of the education rankings, fifth from the bottom in math and third-to-last in reading. But this question got around the ignorance question by asking Louisiana Republicans about a topic they know intimately.
All but the most clueless had to know that Obama, a first-term senator in 2005, was not responsible for the botched storm response that Louisianans experienced up close and personally. It’s a notion so demonstrably false that they wouldn’t have heard anybody arguing for it on Fox News or talk radio. Yet 29 percent of Republican primary voters (the sample size was 274) reflexively endorsed the falsehood.
“Obama derangement syndrome is running pretty high right now among a certain segment of the Republican base,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, told me. “There’s a certain segment of people who say, ‘If you’re going to give me the opportunity to stick it to Obama, I’m going to take it.’ ”
In other words, a large number of that 29 percent who said Obama was responsible for the Katrina response knew that he wasn’t but saw it as a chance to register their displeasure with the president. Obama has driven a large number of Republican voters — Jensen puts it at 15 to 20 percent of the overall electorate — right off their rockers. And to that, there is only one thing to say.
Heckuva job, Barry.