The Birthers Are Back

Since assuming the presidency, Barack Obama has been plagued by rumors that he is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and, as a result, is not eligible to serve as president. The most common claim is that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, but other stories abound.

These rumors have shown a surprising resilience over the last four years. In fact, polls conducted by numerous media organizations repeatedly demonstrated that a significant portion of the American public claimed that Obama was not born in the United States, while many others were not sure if he was.

Time and again, the Obama team tried to dispel the “birther” rumor. During the 2008 presidential contest, Obama released a computer copy of his birth certificate on a campaign website, but this did not quell the controversy. In 2009, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, verified that Obama was born in Hawaii and is a natural-born citizen. But still the rumors would not die.

Finally on April 27, 2011, Obama released his long form birth certificate to reporters and posted a copy on the White House website. This dramatic (and well-covered) revelation seemed to finally turn the tide of public opinion.

From April 23-26, 2011, YouGov surveyed 1000 Americans and asked, “Please tell us whether you think the following statements about Barack Obama are true or false… Barack Obama was born in the United States.” They repeated the question in a poll conducted from April 30 to May 3, immediately following the release of the birth certificate.

As the table below indicates, the public’s rejection of the Birther rumor increased greatly. The proportion of the public who said that Obama was born in the United States rose from just over half to two-thirds of the public.

"Barack Obama was born in the United States": Full Sample
  April 2011
Before Release of Birth Certificate        

After Release of Birth Certificate         

True 55% 67%
False 15% 13%
Not Sure 30% 20%

This change was especially dramatic among Republicans (those respondents who initially identified as Republicans as well as those independent voters who lean to the Republican party).

"Barack Obama was born in the United States": Republicans Only
  April 2011
Before Release of Birth Certificate        

After Release of Birth Certificate         

True 30% 47%
False 25% 23%
Not Sure 45% 29%

At last, it seemed, the Obama administration had found a solution to its problem. But was this moment fleeting? Given the public’s reaction to previous information on this question, could Obama’s action really be the last word on the matter?

To assess the lasting power of the release of Obama’s birth certificate, a January 27-31, 2012 YouGov poll asked 500 respondents whether “Barack Obama was born in the United States of America.” I present the results below, next to the results from last April.

"Barack Obama was born in the United States": Full Sample
  April 2011  January 2012
Before Release of Birth Certificate        

After Release of Birth Certificate         

 

True 55% 67% 59%
False 15% 13% 17%
Not Sure 30% 20% 24%

These polls demonstrate that the power of Obama’s action was short lived. Two-thirds of the initial 12-point increase in the percentage of respondents who say that Obama was born in the United States has disappeared since last April.

This trend is again especially pronounced among Republicans – the percentage of respondents who accept the Birther myth is, if anything, even higher than it was before Obama released his long-form certificate.

"Barack Obama was born in the United States": Republicans Only
  April 2011 January 2012
Before Release of Birth Certificate        

After Release of Birth Certificate         

 

True 30% 47% 27%
False 25% 23% 37%
Not Sure 45% 29% 35%

These results might be troubling, but they are not surprising. They are consistent with my previous work on the lasting power of rumors in the face of new information. As I, and others, have shown, rumors and innuendo are powerful forces in American politics – and they are hard to undo.


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