The Birthers And Vaccinations

Throughout the year, I have been tracking beliefs about President Obama’s citizenship (see here, here, and here). YouGov has asked whether “Barack Obama was born in the United States of America.”

The pattern of results to this question has been extremely stable over the last year. About 55-60 percent of the public think that Obama was born in the United States, with the remaining portion of the public about evenly split between those who think he was not born in this country and those who are not sure if he was.

In addition, the incidence of “Birtherism” is especially pronounced among Republicans. A plurality of Republicans believes that Obama was not born in the United States. When it comes to the “truth,” about politics Democrats and Republicans perceive the world in very different ways.

But partisanship is not the only foundation for rumor acceptance. In other work, I have found that some people are more likely to accept rumors than others, regardless of the specifics of that rumor. For instance, people who distrust the government – perhaps not surprisingly – are more apt to accept rumors about any politician or political group.

As a way to tap generalized distrust of authority, on the most recent YouGov survey (November 23-26, 2012) I asked about views concerning vaccination. Specifically, I asked respondents, “How confident are you that the schedule of vaccines recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services is safe?” I discuss the nature of responses to this question here.

In the figure below, I present the relationship between confidence in the Department of Health and Human Services vaccine schedule and belief that Obama was born in the United States. Among the full sample (the green line) there is a strong relationship between the two beliefs; as confidence in vaccines decreases, belief that Obama was born in the United States decreases as well.

What is especially striking is the fact that the relationship holds among both Democrats (the blue line) and Republicans (the red line). There is, not surprisingly, a large difference in the average support for the belief that Obama was born in the United States among partisans of different stripes. However, both Democrats and Republicans who are less confident in the vaccine schedule are less likely to believe that Obama was born in the U.S.

In sum, Birtherism is not simply a condition of the Republican party; conspiratorial beliefs underlie expressions of misinformation from across the ideological spectrum.

Decreased Confidence in the Vaccine Schedule is Correlated with Higher Rates of Birtherism


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Authors

Adam Berinsky

Adam J. Berinsky is a Professor of Political Science at MIT. Berinsky received his PhD. from the University of Michigan in 2000. He is a specialist in the fields of political behavior and public opinion.  He is the author of In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and Silent Voices: Public Opinion and Political Participation in America (Princeton University Press, 2004) and has published articles in many scholarly journals. He has won several scholarly awards, is the recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.