Forget Chicago. Don’t even think about Hawaii. Twelve percent of the American populace, according to a recent YouGov-Economist poll, thinks that President Obama’s future library should end up in Kenya, somewhere in Africa or “someplace else.”
What started off as a fairly standard national gut check on the location of the Obama collection wound up swerving into the dark, ugly world of Birtherism.
“We’ve asked about where people think Obama was born several times over the past few years,” the chief scientist at YouGov, Doug Rivers, explained to The Root. “Most recently, we asked about where the Obama presidential library should be located, since this was in the news.
“We offered options such as Illinois and Hawaii, but also an open-ended text box, in which 87 people [nearly 9 percent of the sample] said ‘Kenya,’ which caused us to re-ask the question about where Obama was born in another poll a few days later.”
As YouGov (pdf) put it, 38 percent of our citizens doubt that the president was born in the United States. That’s nearly four out of every 10 folks still harboring a Cartoon Network-educated view of their president as somewhat alien. Some of them concede it’s possible that he had a native birth, but 15 percent are convinced they “know for sure” that he did not.
Birtherism is the zit that keeps on popping. Notarized birth certificates hold little weight these days, we’re told. People are going to think what they want to think.
Here’s how the numbers break down. Thirteen percent of independents believe the president wasn’t born in the U.S, as do 28 percent of Republicans. The last bit of data comes as no surprise. But there’s also 38 percent of Republicans who believe it’s only “possible” he was born in the U.S., which adds up to more than half of all GOP voters who are unequivocal in their lasting skepticism of Obama’s birth.
The racial numbers are also revealing, with 44 percent of whites who believe it’s false that he was born on U.S soil. But surprisingly, even 20 percent of African Americans in the poll believe that the statement “Obama was born in the U.S.” is false.
So, you ask, why not let crazy be crazy? What difference does it make what the fringe thinks about the president’s birth? Well, obviously there’s something else going on beyond the open-ended text box. Clever conservative messaging blasts everything from the Affordable Care Act to the minimum wage, and it’s being carefully aligned with a fresh new round of Birther-shouting doubts from anti-Obamans.
Recent research by Centre College professor Benjamin Knoll suggests “nativism,” the anti-foreigner movement, is driving opposition to the Affordable Care Act, with 45 percent of nativists seeing the ACA as negative, versus the small 17 percent of non-nativists who don’t. If Democratic strategists are seeing the same data, it could explain why their bosses, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, are now frantically backtracking from the spectacularly stupid adoption of the derisive term “Obamacare,” linking the president’s name directly to the policy.
We’re also starting to see the Birthers pop up occasionally. Sen. Ted Cruz’s father—a Cuban-born expatriate who once fought for Castro revolutionaries—was recently spotted spouting the Birther gospel to an enthusiastic crowd of happy red-staters. Former Republican Rep. John LeBoutillier, with some prime-time assist from Fox News, is presently pushing a page-wasting novel masked in Birtherese. Occasionally, cable television will light up with grainy YouTube footage of some bigoted Republican lawmaker making Birther statements at quaint forums in remote rural towns. But why does it keep coming up after we’ve already litigated it in two presidential elections?
Because Birtherism will be just as problematic for congressional Democrats in 2014 as it will be for the first black president’s legacy. When you’ve got nearly 40 percent of the electorate under some impression that their president is an illegitimate Kenyan child, it bubbles up into voter resentment, enough of which could lead to Republicans retaking the Senate, while possibly expanding their grip on the House.
Stakes are high in 2014. Although the president isn’t on the ballot this year, the question of his birthplace still is. The crazy conspiracy theory we thought was put to rest returns in fierce political play.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.