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Putting Public Ignorance In Context

I genuinely believed, foolishly, that one of the unintended side benefits of the media’s fascination with Jeremiah Wright is that no one, anywhere,

I genuinely believed, foolishly, that one of the unintended side benefits of the media’s fascination with Jeremiah Wright is that no one, anywhere, could still possibly believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. After all, everyone in the country got to see a whole lot of Obama’s Christian pastor and his Christian church. Sure, there are some uninformed people out there, and some willfully ignorant people who simply choose not to accept reality, but generally speaking, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of voters buying this foolishness.

And yet, the polls have been discouraging. The most recent Newsweek poll found that 11% of the public still thinks Obama is a Muslim. An NYT/CBS poll put the number at 7%. The Pew Forum found 10%.

As disappointing as this is, however, Ben Smith provided some interesting context to public confusion.

One relevant piece of context: Large minorities of Americans consistently say they hold wildly out-of-the-mainstream views, often specifically discredited beliefs. In some cases, those views should make them pretty profoundly alienated from one party or the other.

For instance:

22 percent believe President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
30 percent believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
23 percent believe they’ve been in the presence of a ghost.
18 percent believe the sun revolves around the Earth.

In other words, if about one-in-10 voters buy into the nonsense about Obama, it’s still a reasonably low number, compared to some other widely-held misconceptions.

I’m just not sure, from a political perspective, whether this is reassuring or not.


Ben looked at the numbers and concluded, “Obama may well be elected president with a substantial minority of the citizens despising him and convinced that his beliefs are irreconcilably foreign to theirs. Which, after all, is the current state of affairs. It’s only that the people who believe those things about Bush and the people who believe those things about Obama live in different parts of the country.”

Fair enough. If about 10% of the population believes Obama is a Muslim, and if we’re willing to speculate that the same 10% believe adherence to Islam is somehow a bad thing, the next question is where these misguided people live. If they’re mostly clustered in uncompetitive states that Obama is likely to lose anyway, then the ignorance will likely be without consequence.

If, however, it’s evenly distributed, and about one-in-10 voters everywhere is this confused about Obama’s faith tradition, it’s more likely to have an impact.

Any guesses?

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