Post by Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of The Harris Poll
Our recent Harris Poll “Wingnuts and President Obama” has triggered more interest and controversy than any other recent Harris Poll. As readers of this blog probably know we found that very large numbers of Americans think that President Obama is a socialist, a Muslim, wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States into a world government, has done many things that are unconstitutional and resents America’s heritage.
This poll also reported that a quarter of Americans still believe that he was not born in the United States and so he is not eligible to be President, and almost a quarter believe that he is a racist and anti-American. Perhaps the most startling were the smaller but still substantial numbers who believe that he is doing many of the things that Hitler did (20%) and that he may be the anti-Christ (14%).
We have been asked several questions about this poll.
Q. What are the implications of this poll for American politics?
A. They are important. Next week we will be publishing a poll on the Tea Party Movement and the attitudes of their supporters. Many of them believe the statements about President Obama. There are other Republicans who think they are dangerous nonsense.
Over this year, and beyond, I think we will see a struggle for the control (some might say the soul) of the Republican Party. If the Tea Party people come out on top, I think it spells real trouble for the party, as they run the risk of alienating moderate Republicans and most Independents.
One other thought strikes me. Bismark famously remarked that people should not be allowed to watch the making of sausages or laws (presumably because the former is too unpleasant and the latter is too complicated ). But we believe in Democracy with “one man one vote” (forgive the sexism here) regardless of whether they are knowledgeable or misinformed. Voters are not always right. Which may explain why Churchill believed that “democracy is the worst form of government --- except for all the others”.
Q. Why did we do this poll?
A. I was recently reading a new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatics Are Hijacking America written by John Avlon which describes the large number of Americans who hold extreme views of President Obama. As nobody seems to have quantified the numbers of people who hold these opinions, I thought it would make an interesting Harris Poll. To judge by the media coverage and reactions, this is certainly true.
Q. As with most newsworthy and controversial polls, some people don’t seem to like the answers and if you don’t like the message, the easiest thing to do is to shoot the messenger. What criticisms have you heard?
A. Critics of our poll have focused on two issues: our online methodology and the way we asked questions. Enough has been written about our online methodology that there is nothing much to add here. However, I would remind readers that we believe the accuracy of our online polls because they have proved to be, on average, more accurate than telephone polls in the more than fifty elections where there are head-to-head comparisons.
Q. What about the way the survey questions were asked?
A. One criticism of our questions is that we said “here are some things people have said about President Obama.” Our critics suggest that this increases the number of people who believe they are true – because someone has said them. This is possible but there is no evidence that I’m aware of that supports this hypothesis. However, asking people if statements are true or false is a well accepted methodology that has been used in hundreds of polls over many years. And, of course, it is used in educational and other tests.
Q. What about the criticism that, with one possible exception, all of the fifteen statements we asked about are usually made by people who are very critical of the President and can be fairly described as pejorative?
A. This is true. It is possible, if we had included both positive and negative statements, fewer people would have said the negative statements were true. However, most of the criticisms seem to come from people who didn’t want to believe that the answers were accurate. My guess is that people who believe the statements, including many supporters of the Tea Party Movement, are not unhappy to see how many people agree with them. I have also heard from supporters of the President who seem pleased that we have documented the degree of misinformation and hostility that is coming from some Republicans. The most unhappy campers seem to be the moderate Republicans who are concerned about the possibility (and I think it is a possibility) that the Tea Party Movement and people who believe a lot of these statements will take over the Republican Party.
Q. What about the criticism: this poll must have been conducted to help the Democrats?
A. It might help them if Republican leaders are asked whether or not they agree with these statements. But this was not our intention. It should be noted that as a matter of policy we have not worked for politicians in this country since 1963. Some of us worked, before coming here, for them in the past (mostly I think for Republicans). A long time ago we worked for the Conservative Party in Britain, for three prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher.
I am proud we did this poll. However I do detect a little sour grapes from other pollsters who wish they had done it first! If nothing else, we have stimulated a great deal of interesting discussion and made a valuable contribution to the debate.