What Birtherism Teaches Us About Polling: An Expert's Take

How doubts over Obama's origins could change the way we look at surveys -- the most dominant metrics in American politics

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We've all said things we don't mean.

If it's not "maybe this was a mistake," or "your sister is the pretty one," it's something else, like, for instance, "I think Barack Obama was born outside the United States and is constitutionally ineligible to be president."

That's one theory we can apply to birtherism -- and it's the theory offered up by respected pollster Gary Langer, who heads up Langer Research Associates and directs polling for ABC News.

A wave of recent surveys have shown that doubts about Obama's birthplace are stunningly prevalent. In a CBS/New York Times poll, 25 percent of all respondents and 45 percent of Republicans said they do not think Obama was born in the United States. A total of 18 percent said they weren't sure. According to Fox News, 24 percent do not think Obama was born in America.

Maybe, just maybe, those poll respondents don't actually think what they say they think, Langer suggests. Maybe they say all this for some other reason -- such as that they just don't like the president.

"I'd suggest that it's dicey at best to evaluate measurements on questions such as the president's birthplace as a 'belief,' as opposed to, for at least some respondents, merely an expression of antipathy," Langer wrote in an email. "We have called this 'expressed belief,' in contrast with 'affirmed belief.' The latter is an assertion of perceived factual reality; the former, message-sending."

As an example, Langer points to belief in global warming. While most Americans believe global warming exists, the fraction of global warming believers has shrunk over the past few years, according to polls, even as the scientific consensus has solidified in global warming's favor.

Along with Patrick Moynihan of Harvard and Peyton Craighill, formerly of the Democratic polling and strategy firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and now of The Washington Post, Langer argued in a paper presented at the May 2010 American Association for Public Opinion Research Conference that related political and policy opinions might be influencing the numbers on global warming. People might have told pollsters that they don't believe in global warming not because they actually don't believe in it, but as a way to register their opinions on cap-and-trade, for instance, or unilateral U.S. policy action, the three polling experts asserted.

Stated beliefs in global warming had really only dropped off among conservatives and Republicans, they found, while opinions among moderates and Democrats remained mostly steady. They came up with some correlation coefficients, relating respondents' stated policy positions to their stated beliefs on global warming, and found that correlations had gotten stronger on the right, in particular, within the past year:

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The three concluded:

We suggest further that there can be a message-sending element to the way respondents answer survey questions - not always to answer the question in the way we imagine, but in the way they desire. Respondents who oppose or are skeptical about proposed policy solutions on global warming, yet who see such policies as increasingly likely given the change in administration, may be more apt to express opposition to such policies by any means available - including by withdrawing their expressed belief that global warming is occurring. They use such questions as a vehicle to express antipathy toward the solution, not to voice a firm disbelief in the existence of the problem.

Of course, it's also possible that positions on cap-and-trade, for instance, really did change people's beliefs on global warming, and that actual beliefs, not just stated ones, are deductively tailored to fit other opinions.

Pollsters would need to run some numbers before we can know whether or not this is actually the case with birtherism, but the phenomenon nonetheless points in a more holistic, crossdisciplinary direction when it comes to thinking about polls. What does it mean when a person tells a pollster he/she thinks something? And what does it mean to say something to a pollster over the phone?

According to Langer's theory, birtherism may well teach us that answering a poll can be an act of retribution, maybe even a sadistic one, or at least a way to register a complex matrix of associated thoughts and feelings. There is almost no social consequence to saying words out loud to a pollster over the phone, unless one's friends are listening, so Obama's critics probably feel freer to say something outlandish, such as that he was born outside the U.S., when talking to CBS or Fox.

When birther polls are examined in this light, the popular discussion of polling moves into the fields of psychology and sociology. According to Langer and his academic compadres, poll responses could have more to do with the individual impulse to reinforce preexisting (and partially related) cognitive models, than the straight-faced registering of opinions.

Looking at polling from this perspective would require a more behaviorist approach. And if birtherism leads a verified polling expert to raise such questions, maybe birtherism will force us all to think differently about polls -- the most common empirical metric in politics.

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