Does the Muslim Myth Threaten Obama?

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A new Pew survey flooding the airwaves this morning finds that 18 percent of respondents think Obama is a Muslim--a 7 percent increase from March 2009. Only 34 percent think he's Christian, a 14 percent drop from last year, and a full 43 percent say they don't know what his religion is.

Chris Cillizza acknowledges that the partisan bent of responses could limit the electoral significance of Pew's findings:

There is, without question, some significant level of partisanship inherent in questions about Obama's faith; the less you like the President, the more likely you are to say he is a Muslim. And, in truth, that 18 percent who falsely identify the President with the Islamic faith would almost certainly never be voting for him anyway.

Perhaps more important from an electoral perspective, however, is the growing number of people who don't know what religion the President identifies with. While most Americans don't tend to vote based on religious faith--although being either a Muslim or a Mormon can, among certain demographic groups, complicate a politician's electoral calculus--they do like to believe that their president is a man of faith.

Cillizza is quick to write off the 18 percent of respondents who think Obama's a Muslim as unlikely to vote for him anyway. While many of this group are Republicans who likely will not vote for Obama--31 percent of Republican respondents identified him as a Muslim--a growing number are independents whose votes the president and the Democrats will aggressively court in November and in 2012. In addition to 10 percent of Democrats, 18 percent of independent respondents fell in this category, an 8 percent increase from 2009.


There's no way to tell if these independents fall to the left or right of the Republican party, thereby making them more or less likely to vote for Obama. The question, then, is whether thinking Obama is a Muslim makes one less likely to vote for him--whether poll respondents have negative opinions of Muslims. Pew did not address this question, but recent polling has.

A Time poll conducted earlier this week found that only 44 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Muslim faith. 28 percent did not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the Supreme Court, and nearly one third thought that they should not be allowed to run for president. The poll was pegged to the hot-button "Ground Zero mosque" issue and found that 61 percent of respondents did not support the project.

Pew does find a correlation, if not a causation, between thinking Obama is a Muslim and disapproving of him as president. Among those who he's a Muslim, 67 percent disapprove of his job performance, while 62 percent of those who think he's Christian approve of his performance. The respondents who weren't sure about Obama's religion are split fairly evenly between job approval and disapproval. 

The Pew survey was conducted before Obama expressed his belief that the Cordoba Initiative had every right to construct an Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero. His comments have been explosive enough already, but will Pew's findings up their significance? For the 43 percent of respondents who did not know what Obama's religion was, will his support for the project (though he was careful not to endorse it, per se), expressed at a Ramadan celebration, serve to confirm rumors they may already have heard?

One final question is whether Pew's results will affect midterm elections. If Obama himself were up for re-election in November, the fact that nearly one-fifth of Americans falsely believed he was Muslim, and that Americans in general don't have the rosiest view of Muslims, might worry Democrats. But it's unclear whether confusion about the president's religious identity will trickle down to affect his party's candidates in congressional and gubernatorial races.

Democrats are already worried about Obama's plummeting approval and popularity ratings rubbing off on their party's incumbents, who are facing fierce anti-Washington sentiment at home. The Muslim confusion may not intensify these worries, but it probably won't soothe them either.
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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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