by Matthew Knee

I have generally believed that Obama did not release his birth certificate because he thought that the birther issue made some of his opponents look foolish. So long as the birther issue was politically beneficial, there was no reason to put it to rest.

But, true conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, now he has. Why? That is the question of the day. Does he fear Trump qua Trump? Doubtful. Trump’s polling is pretty dismal at this juncture. It’s Palin dismal (Don’t get me wrong, I like Sarah Palin, but bad numbers are bad numbers). Did he think the public was starting to buy the birther line in a way that was particularly harmful to him? Perhaps.

If so, he may have been driven to a political blunder by a collection of basic errors in polling interpretation. As Nate Silver points out, while Gallup found that only 38% of Americans believe Obama was definitely born in the US, only 43% of Americans think Trump (about whom there is no active birther movement) was definitely born in the US.

A number of issues may be artificially inflating this high degree of uncertainty. First of all, when people are asked questions about political figures, the act of asking the question is itself a suggestion that a meaningful controversy exists about the subject. Second, people are hesitant to express absolute certainty, especially about matters they know little about or do not regularly concern themselves with. Finally, people also don’t always answer the question the pollster thinks they are asking, especially when they know few actual facts about the issue in question. Polling non-obvious facts about controversial people will often result in respondents simply taking the opportunity to express positive or negative affect towards the person in question.

The number of Americans who think Obama was definitely born abroad (24%) is significantly greater than the number who think Trump was born abroad (7%), but it seems unlikely that once the sources of inflation are removed, there are all that many Americans left who are serious birthers and are the sort of people who would ever consider voting for Obama anyway.

Taken together, these theoretical flaws and Gallup’s “Trump birther” pseudo-control question raise significant doubts as to the threat posed to Obama by birtherism. Had Obama waited until the election, he may have been able to strike a serious blow against his opponent and other Republicans by shooting down this conspiracy in a spectacular fashion, but instead, he did us a great favor by squandering this advantage.


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