In March 2009, a Pew poll found that 11 percent of Americans incorrectly believed President Obama was a Muslim. A new Pew poll shows that that number has increased to 18 percent. Does this seven-point jump have any significance? Maybe. Maybe not.
Seven points doesn't seem like that big of a statistical shift, and the baseline of 11 percent isn't that surprising, given the high levels of voter ignorance. "Most individual voters are abysmally ignorant of even very basic political information," Ilya Somin concluded in a 2004 study. During the 2000 election, 10 percent of voters didn't know George W. Bush was a Texan, and 30 percent didn't know Joe Lieberman is Jewish. And those were two of the questions on which voters scored best.
But if the 7 point shift is significant, what might have caused it? For Time's Amy Sullivan, "The Pew poll is evidence that the endless conservative media cycle of misinformation about Obama is working: of those respondents who identified Obama's faith as Islam, 60% said they learned the 'fact' from the media."
Of course, Sullivan doesn't point to any "conservative media" oulets that have pushed the claim Obama's a Muslim in the past year. "The Emergence of President Obama's Muslim Roots" was the title of an ABC News blog post from June 2009. Though the report was (unfairly) attacked by the left, it was actually a smart report on how Team Obama had shifted, in advance of the president's visit to Cairo, from minimizing to touting Obama's experiences in the Muslim world and with Muslim family members:
During a conference call in preparation for President Obama's trip to Cairo, Egypt, where he will address the Muslim world, deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough said "the President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to -- or before he's been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world -- you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father -- obviously Muslim Americans (are) a key part of Illinois and Chicago."
Given widespread unease and prejudice against Muslims among Americans, especially in the wake of 9/11, the Obama campaign was perhaps understandably very sensitive during the primaries and general election to downplay the candidate's Muslim roots.
The candidate was even offended when referred to by his initials "BHO," because he considered the use of his middle name, "Hussein," an attempt to frighten voters.
So maybe Obama's embrace of his non-religious experiences with Islam helped cause this seven-point jump. Or perhaps, as Ben Smith speculates: "telling a pollster that Obama is a Muslim is just another way of expressing disapproval." Or maybe more people think Obama's a Muslim because he doesn't go to church and doesn't talk about Jesus like he did on the campaign trail, as Time's Sullivan reasonably observes later in her blog post.Whatever the reason for the uptick in this poll and confusion in general about Obama's religion, it doesn't seem to be a sign that "a lot of people" in America "view Muslims the way that the czars used to view the Jews," as Slate blogger David Weigel writes.