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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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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  1. The issue has never been whether or not one of his parents is an American. The real issue is (and has been) whether a person born a dual citizen (or possibly a triple or even quadruple citizen) is legally qualified to be president as a a natural born citizen? If so, would he have been required to renounce his other citizenships at first opportunity as an adult to be qualified? If he did not, would his other citizenships disqualify him to be a candidate for president? If he ever travelled as an adult under another passport would that disqualify him? Professor enlighten us please.

  2. "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"

    May I respectfully disagree as one who didn't pay birtherism much attention until now? Obama's having played the American public over this issue has exposed him as either a nasty strategist who doesn't respect his country's simple questions head-on or as a Trumped someone who has something to hide and who is now faking it because of potential eligibility laws.

    If his hedging on the BC issue is perceived as all about political gaming or possible deception despite the doc release, Obama loses as a petty, mean-spirited leader of only some, not all of us, and as one who hasn't the confidence of his nation at-large.

  3. Who checks the qualifications of presidential candidates - and why isn't this info public knowledge?

  4. Disagree. Trump's threat was that he could keep the issue in the news forever highlighting the president's curiously determined and expensive (to taxpayers) effort to keep the facts away from the public. People who are hide things usually have something to hide. Even in the short-run, it was immensely corrosive.

    The other thing is that it was prodding Republicans to show some fight earlier than he or the Republicans wanted throwing everyone's timing off. And despite the correct assessment that Trump was hurting Obama more than Republicans, he was absolutely deadly to the establishment Republicans which was not good for Obama.

    Trump running independent would have meant that he was polling well against everyone and threatened to water down an Obama victory by taking his share down as low as under 40%.

    Trump is upsetting the Republicans plans to ruin the conservatives in 2012 while hoping to win in 2012 by default.

  5. I do think that had Obama kept this information until closer to the 2012 elections, he would have gained more traction from it.

    But as it happened, Donald Trump was giving a lengthy press conference when Obama came out to give his. Trump's conference trumped Obama's.

    Now Obama has really created more questions than he has answered. Now more Americans, independents in particular, are going to be asking why Obama waited so long to clear this BC issue up. If they decide that he was simply playing games, that will not endear Obama to them.

    Trump is controlling the dialog. That is not good for Obama. Trump is also saying things that luguini spined RINOs won't say. And forcing Obama to make a press statement about the release of his b.c. shows that Obama was concerned about the effect Trump was having on him, which was to create doubt about Obama in people's minds that may not have been there before.

    If you will remember Rathergate, when President Bush allowed the release of his military records, he did not come out and defend his actions to the press, as Obama did today. He simply ordered them released.

  6. Trump was no birther but he is a savy negotiator and he saw an clear opening in asking the simple question of why is he hiding the birth certificate if he's got nothing to hide ...
    Releasing the certificate doesn't fix the problem that Trump was able to create in the minds of many which was why is he hiding it ... It also brings Obama down to earth, he loses his mystery ...
    If he releases his transcripts he risks losing the genius/smart label and that he cannot afford to do so I don't expect him to release those ... but Trump will say the same thing ... if he has nothing to hide why is he hiding them ...

  7. Put the Birth document released by the White house today (the pdf released directly from the White House)into Adobe Illustrator... 22 edits were made. A clean scan should have zero !!!!! What a bunch of amateurs ... And don't forget about Jus sanguinis and Natural Born Citizenship, incarcerated Dr. Terry Lakin and the curious CT. social security number.

    Let's see Trump's next move. Things should get clearer soon RE Trump and this issue...

  8. Maybe polls aren't what he's looking at -- could Obama be preparing the ground for the release of Corsi's book?

  9. Nonsense. Obama played this brilliantly for its maximum effect in painting people opposed to his actions and policies as just a bunch of whackos. And Trump, thinking only of how to maximize attention to himself, got his publicity and now looks like a fool and a clown.

    Meanwhile, the birther disease lives on, like a bloodsucking parasite. At the top of these comments, we see one nutcase clinging to the ludicrous idea that people born with a right to another citizenship in addition to American must choose and renounce others (if so, although I was born in New Haven, CT, I am unwittingly an Irish citizen since Eire eagerly confers citizenship on any willing taker who, like me, had a mother from Ireland).

    Elsewhere, other nuts have taken to calling the released certificate a fraud because the current website for the hospital named on the documenf neglects in its brief two paragraph description to mention that one of its legacy institutions went through a name change before merging with the other. Applying this sort of flimsy non-research to my case, one would be hard-pressed to find out anything about the hospital where I was born, Grace Hospital. It was ine of many threads woven together to form today's Yale-New Haven Medical Center.

    Obama is vulnerable. He can be beaten on the issues of a lagging economy, runaway spending, meekness in foreigh policies, incompetence and Obamacare. Every bit of energy expended on crazy demands for birth certificates, college grades and old passports is a total, crying waste that enabled Obama to persuade swing voters that, as much as they think he is a failure, the alternative is a bunch of whackos.

  10. 1st off, why hasn't anyone made more of the fact that a natural born citizen has to have 2 U.S. citizens as parents? Am I correct in that?

    As to his release of the BC, I think his handlers were more worried about the bills in many states being passed that would require vetting all pres. candidates eligibility before being allowed on their ballots. The Const. gives states the right to set their own rules on voting and voter quals. -- he can't fight them all. With the BC out there, the hope is that the pressure on the state reps to pass these laws will lessen.

    I don't think that will happen.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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….”