Poll: Birthers Now Make Up a Majority of Republican Primary Voters

Creeping birtherism illustrates the new fault line in the GOP


I'm starting to think that the Republican Party is actually going crazy. There are the South Dakotans who want to make the murder of an abortion provider " justifiable homicide;" there are legislators in a dozen different states trying to resurrect the long-dead, never-legitimate nullification doctrine; and there's the Virginia state lawmaker who wants the commonwealth to start minting its own money.

The latest evidence of fringe nuttiness infecting the Grand Old Party? A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows that a majority of likely Republican presidential primary voters are "birthers"--they believe that President Obama was born in another country.

According to PPP's survey, 51 percent of likely 2012 GOP primary voters believe that President Obama was born in another country (which would make him ineligible for the presidency). Another 21 percent say they are "not sure" if the president was born in the United States. Or to put it another way, 72 percent of the people who will be choosing the next Republican presidential nominee are either birthers or birther-curious.A mere 28 percent of the GOP primary electorate responded, correctly, that the president is a natural-born American citizen. [ See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

The birther/nonbirther split also seems to reflect a fault line in the GOP primary electorate. Asked who they preferred the Republican nominee to be, the nonbirther minority chose former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over any of the other named candidates. With 19 percent, Romney still trails "someone else/undecided" but leads former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (17 percent), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (11 percent), and Rep. Ron Paul (10 percent). The birther majority, however, has a different view of the potential candidates: Huckabee leads with 24 percent, followed by Palin (19 percent), someone else/undecided (15 percent), Newt Gingrich (14 percent), and finally Romney (11 percent). Perhaps, TNR's Jonathan Chait quips, the birthers "can smell the inauthenticity of [Romney's] attempts to appear like an unhinged right-wing lunatic." [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Palin, who has flirted with birtherirsm in the past, apparently has serious cred in that department however. She in particularly is viewed starkly differently by birthers and nonbirthers: 83 percent of birthers view her favorably and 12 percent unfavorable, but the numbers are starkly different for nonbirthers, who have a net negative view of her, with 41 percent approving and 52 percent seeing her unfavorably. [ See photos of Palin and her family.]

Birtherism appears to be on the march. As PPP's Tom Jensen blogs:

The GOP birther majority is a new development. The last time PPP tested this question nationally, in August of 2009, only 44% of Republicans said they thought Obama was born outside the country while 36% said that he definitely was born in the United States. If anything birtherism is on the rise.

Perhaps, Chait notes, this explains why the "GOP leadership tiptoes so carefully around this issue." As Slate's William Saletan shows, GOP bigwigs are careful to address birther issues (and questions about whether the president is a Christian or a closeted Muslim) as matters of opinion rather than fact. Most recently House Speaker John Boehner, asked on Meet the Press whether he feels a responsibility to repudiate birtherism, demurred that, "it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people."

This answer is double inane. First of all it's not a matter of opinion, the president's birthplace is a matter of recorded fact. Suppose Gregory had asked about theories that the moon landing was staged or that President Bush was secretly behind 9/11--would Boehner give similar "everyone's entitled to their opinion" line? (Compare Boehner last weekend, Greg Sargent points out, with Bill Clinton slamming a "truther" during the 2008 presidential campaign.) Robert's 12 Rule of Politics: When a politician says that it's not their place to weigh in on a major issue, they mean that their view runs counter to the party's rabid base.

And secondly, it is in fact Boehner's job to tell the American people what to think. That's what leaders do. They make a case, engage in debate, and try to persuade people of the rightness of their position. It's what Boehner himself did, for example, when he spoke out against the proposal to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. The job of politicians in Washington isn't merely to listen to the American people--it's to engage with them, sometimes persuading them, and sometimes doing what they believe to be correct even if the people don't like it. And if the people don't like it they can vote in new politicians. If Boehner doesn't get that then maybe he should relinquish his job to the computer currently competing on Jeopardy.