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    Did Basic Polling Interpretation Errors Drive Obama To Mishandle The Birth Certificate Issue?

    Did Basic Polling Interpretation Errors Drive Obama To Mishandle The Birth Certificate Issue?

    by Matthew Knee

    I have generally believed that Obama did not release his birth certificate because he thought that the birther issue made some of his opponents look foolish. So long as the birther issue was politically beneficial, there was no reason to put it to rest.

    But, true conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, now he has. Why? That is the question of the day. Does he fear Trump qua Trump? Doubtful. Trump’s polling is pretty dismal at this juncture. It’s Palin dismal (Don’t get me wrong, I like Sarah Palin, but bad numbers are bad numbers). Did he think the public was starting to buy the birther line in a way that was particularly harmful to him? Perhaps.

    If so, he may have been driven to a political blunder by a collection of basic errors in polling interpretation. As Nate Silver points out, while Gallup found that only 38% of Americans believe Obama was definitely born in the US, only 43% of Americans think Trump (about whom there is no active birther movement) was definitely born in the US.

    A number of issues may be artificially inflating this high degree of uncertainty. First of all, when people are asked questions about political figures, the act of asking the question is itself a suggestion that a meaningful controversy exists about the subject. Second, people are hesitant to express absolute certainty, especially about matters they know little about or do not regularly concern themselves with. Finally, people also don’t always answer the question the pollster thinks they are asking, especially when they know few actual facts about the issue in question. Polling non-obvious facts about controversial people will often result in respondents simply taking the opportunity to express positive or negative affect towards the person in question.

    The number of Americans who think Obama was definitely born abroad (24%) is significantly greater than the number who think Trump was born abroad (7%), but it seems unlikely that once the sources of inflation are removed, there are all that many Americans left who are serious birthers and are the sort of people who would ever consider voting for Obama anyway.

    Taken together, these theoretical flaws and Gallup’s “Trump birther” pseudo-control question raise significant doubts as to the threat posed to Obama by birtherism. Had Obama waited until the election, he may have been able to strike a serious blow against his opponent and other Republicans by shooting down this conspiracy in a spectacular fashion, but instead, he did us a great favor by squandering this advantage.


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    As hinted by retire05, the amusing thing (if you like low irony) about all of this is the number of baying-at-the-moon AWOLers who now want to sneer at "birthers". What goes around, comes around.

    Obama ended the primary birther hysteria because after two weeks into the "War on Ryan" campaign, he hadn't made a noticeable dent in audience appreciation. What was worse was that his own minions in the media were working against his new campaign while they prolonged the "birther" saga.
    Instead of making Ryan and his budget the primary point of the current media narrative, the "birther" saga was letting other news, like high energy prices, slip into the news.

    None of us here can know precisely why Obama released this now, but I think Matthew is definitely onto something when he suggests that having giving it up works to his political disadvantage in the long run.

    But I'm not sure I buy the notion that he was misreading the polls. Instead, I sense that he felt public opinion was starting to metastasize against him on the issue, and that if he took the risk of it really turning against him, it would be much more expensive in the long run to turn it around again — money that could be much better spent attacking Republicans. So, maybe he released it to stanch the current bleeding, and in doing so had to give up a one-shot potent piece of ammo.

    I do think Obama had seen the release as a potential weapon he could launch at some time when the stars were lined up properly . . . ideally where it could work to ridicule his opponent or of Republicans in general as out there on the political fringe.

    But he felt compelled to shoot the bolt now essentially in response to someone who is not a serious contender for the Republican nomination. It was a defensive move, and may be seen by many Democrats in that regard as a waste of "ammo" . . . like a "mad minute."

    Perhaps, as one commenter her suggested, he also recognized that the longer he waited the greater the possibility that independents would see it as an annoying example of playing petty political games, something that a President should really be above.

    In any “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment, there is a tipping point where public opinion goes from “Darned dumb kids” to “Hey, he’s right.” As much as I detest Trump for his business deals, those same deals give him an enormous amount of (pardon me) gravitas in the political ring. The exact same reporters who would not even think some North-Western former governor chick had a brain, will suddenly get all attentive when the local real-estate mogul (who’s building they may work out of, live in, etc…) makes exactly the same statement. It seems the longer Trump hammered the issue, the more people were shifting their opinions in his favor, and once your supporters have left, there is no guarantee they will return. They might even find some other ideologue they like better, even (shudder) Hillary.

    The one thing that is baffling me is the supposed inconsistencies that are cropping up on this electronically released document. It had barely hit the White House website before the cries of “Photoshop!” began. If he was trying to damp down doubt about his citizenship, then why release a high-resolution layered PDF with several strange internal-looking edits instead of simply making the paper document received from the State of Hawaii available to the National Archives and the press? Something like “I had Hawaii make a couple dozen copies, you can pick one up at the front of the room after the press conference for five bucks each….”

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