The recent Pew poll suggesting that 18 percent of Americans incorrectly believe that the President is a Muslim incited a fierce reaction and spurred a seemingly exasperated Obama to dismiss the rumors during an interview with NBC's Brian Williams. But as pressure mounts on the White House to denounce the apparently pervasive belief, at least one observer doesn't think that Americans are actually saying what they mean to pollsters.
Gary Langer, founder of Langer Research associates (which provides polling services to ABC News), is skeptical that voters actually "believe" that Obama is a Muslim. Instead he posits that they are saying this to pollsters in order to "throw verbal stones at that which they actively dislike." He explains:
People in fact may voice an attitude not as an affirmed belief – a statement of perceived factual reality – but rather as what my colleagues and I have taken to calling “expressed belief” – a statement intended to send a message, not claim a known fact. ...
There are many celebrated examples. Saying the moon landing was staged is an easy way to express skepticism of the federal government. ... And calling Barack Obama a Muslim is - for people who see this as a negative attribute - a handy way to say you don't like the guy.
Langer also notes that the amount of people who believe Obama is a Muslim is tied directly to his rising disapproval rating:
This concept not only explains the expressed “belief” that Obama’s a Muslim, but its recent rise. Disapproval of the president has grown, including strong disapproval. The growing roll of strong disapprovers provides a larger pool of individuals looking for opportunities to voice that sentiment. Socialist? Yep. Born in Kenya? Sure. Muslim? You betcha.
And also wonders how many of those who "believe" Obama is Muslim were fed the answer by pollsters or came up with the word themselves:
Pew’s question offers a list of options for Obama’s religion - “is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else?” It was followed by a Time magazine question that offered only “a Muslim or a Christian”; in that one even more, 24 percent, called Obama a Muslim.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.