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Birthers, Truthers and Spreaders

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Friday, February 18, 2011

My first reaction to stories about the Public Policy Polling survey that found that 51 percent of GOP primary voters believe President Obama was not born in the United States was disbelief. Informed Americans understand that Barack Obama is American-born. Conspiracy theories that suggest otherwise are too tortured to take seriously. And I'm sick of the left -- PPP is a Democratic polling firm, if with a reputation for accuracy -- flogging a story that makes Republicans look like rubes.

MSNBC talking heads live to hype birther stories because, it seems, they so want Republicans to believe the conspiracy theory. They've helped make it a story that won't go away.

GOP pollster Steve Kinney had the same initial reaction to the PPP poll. "I find it surprising that number is that high," he said. "In California, where I do most of my work, I don't think it would be that high."

Besides, I wondered, wouldn't some people tell a pollster that they thought Obama was born abroad merely to be contrary? PPP Director Tom Jensen conceded that some voters might answer no when asked if they think Obama was born in the United States, not because they believe he was born abroad, but as a proxy to voice "a general dislike" of the president.

"There may be enough people playing with the poll that it's not 51 percent," Jensen noted, "but it's definitely over 40." In 2009, his firm conducted deep testing into birther beliefs and concluded that a "decent amount" of respondents didn't believe Hawaii -- where Obama was born -- is part of the United States. Another 10 percent thought Obama was born in Indonesia, where he lived as a child after his mother married stepfather Lolo Soetoro, and 7 percent thought Obama was born in his father's homeland, Kenya.

Why would the number of birthers be growing?

The left likes to blame GOP leaders for not categorically denying birther theories.

On "Meet the Press" Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner said he believes Obama was born in Hawaii. In response to a Fox News clip in which Iowa voters said they believe Obama is a Muslim, Boehner also said he believes the president is a Christian. That wasn't enough for "Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory, who argued Boehner had a "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance."

What is Gregory's responsibility? It very well might be that more voters believe the birther/Muslim tales because the media won't stop reporting on them. Jensen agreed that "the fact that (the birther story) hasn't gone away" might be a reason it is "a more commonly held view."

Why even ask the birther question? Jensen noted that his firm has a long-held interest in "the measure of extremism in the American public." PPP polls also have asked if voters believe President George W. Bush "intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place because he wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East." In September 2009, 27 percent of Obama voters answered yes.

"The truther accusation ultimately is much more malicious than the birther accusation," Jensen observed. PPP has tracked truthers and birthers to test the public's willingness to demonize a president. In this country today, a nasty rumor has everything but brakes.

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