Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is Obama Muslim? Some NJ Voters Continue to Think So

Today we release our polling on attitudes towards President Barack Obama in New Jersey. Recently the Pew polling folks released this poll showing nearly 20% of the country thinks Obama is Muslim. Another 43% said they do not know his religion and only 34 percent properly identified him as Christian.

Lots of coverage of this poll, and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. How could the American public be so dumb? How could they NOT know the president is Christian? I wrote a little op-ed on this that appeared in the Bergen Record based on my research on political evaluation. Today though we have some polling results from New Jersey on this topic.

We asked registered voters to tell us Obama (and Gov. Chris Christie's) religion. We did not give a list, just asked people to tell us what they thought it is. In a nutshell, 12 percent say Obama is Muslim, 43 percent correctly identify him as Protestant (more specific than Christian), and 38 percent say they don't know Obama's religion.

So NJ voters are a little smarter than people nationally, right? They are more likely to know Obama's religion and less likely to think he is Muslim. Yet we would expect this simply because of the level of coverage of the issue since the Pew poll. We'd also expect it because more NJ voters are Democrats, and Democrats are much more likely NOT to say Obama is Muslim.

By the way, even more voters get Christie's religion wrong - though no one calls him Muslim. About 56% say they don't know the Governor's religion, and only 14 percent identify specifically him as Catholic.

Anyway, who cares? Why does it matter? Well, it probably does not matter that people don't know Christie's religion. But thinking Obama is Muslim is related very directly to other negative attitudes towards him. For example, 40 percent of those who say he is Muslim also say that Obama's administration is "un-American" and 60% say Obama is a socialist. We also find that this is directly very personally at Obama himself (and his policies). When we ask people if they are angry at "the government in Washington", those who believe Obama is Muslim are no more likely to say they are angry than anyone else. This Obama is Muslim rhetoric is about the president and his policies, not about the general sense of frustration and anger the majority of New Jersey voters feel towards Washington.

The release follows. You can see the full release and all of the questions and tables here.


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J – While New Jersey voters are less likely to say President Barack Obama is Muslim compared to recent national polls, a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released today finds 12 percent still call him Muslim. Obama is Protestant, and his religion is correctly identified by 43 percent of respondents; 3 percent think he is Roman Catholic, while 38 percent say they do not know. Nationally, 43 percent do not know Obama’s religion, according to a Pew Center poll released last month.

About three-in-four voters who think Obama is a Muslim claim they learned his religion from the media, 10 percent from presidential behavior or statements and 7 percent from the Internet. The remaining 7 percent are unsure or say his ancestry or name reveals his faith.

Voters in general know little about the religious beliefs Gov. Chris Christie as well: 56 percent say they do not know Christie’s religion. Only14 percent correctly identify him as Catholic, while 25 percent voters believe Christie is Protestant.

“The public’s erroneous perception about Obama’s religion has been well-documented in recent weeks,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science. “Our polling shows that misperception is still widespread in the state. The reason this matters for Obama – while not meaning much for other elected officials – is that those who identify him as Muslim do so in a negative way. Being Muslim is seen as out of the mainstream. Being identified as Protestant when you are Catholic has limited consequences.”

The poll of 912 registered New Jersey voters was conducted Sept. 23 to 26 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points.

Who believes Obama is a Muslim?

Almost half (48 percent) the most religious voters (those who attend services at least weekly) correctly identify Obama’s religion, while only 10 percent say he is Muslim and 33 percent say they don’t know. Less religious voters are more likely to get Obama’s religion wrong. Among those attending services monthly, 16 percent label the president as Muslim, 34 percent correctly say he is Protestant and 41 percent say they don’t know.

Partisanship plays a central role in questions about Obama’s religion. Only 8 percent of Democrats say he is Muslim, one-third the percentage of Republicans. Just 6 percent of independents believe the president is Muslim.

Conversely, 54 percent of Democrats get Obama’s religion right, twice the percentage of Republicans and 12 percent higher than independents. The latter group also is the most likely to say they don’t know Obama’s religion (46 percent). One-quarter of Republicans with a favorable impression of the Tea Party call Obama Muslim, but only 18 percent of Republicans who are unfavorable toward the Tea Party do the same.

Impressions of the President and Job Approval

President Obama has seen a five percentage point gain among registered voters in his New Jersey favorability ratings (now 57 percent) since an August Rutgers-Eagleton Poll; 34 percent hold an unfavorable view, down from 36 percent. More than half (53 percent) rate Obama’s job performance excellent or good and 45 percent judge it fair or poor. Of those with a favorable impression of the president, 83 percent think he is doing an excellent or good job. Of those with an unfavorable impression, only 12 percent call his work excellent or good; 60 percent say he is doing a poor job.

Belief that Obama is Muslim is highly correlated with attitudes toward the president: 8 percent with a favorable view say he is Muslim, 51 percent correctly identify him as Protestant, and 34 percent say they don’t know his religion. Among voters with an unfavorable impression, 18 percent say he is Muslim, 31 percent say he is Protestant, and 43 percent are unsure.

“One thing we know is that belief that Obama is Muslim is part of a package of negative feelings towards him,” said Redlawsk. “While most who disapprove of Obama do not say he is Muslim, a significant number do, while few of those who approve of him say the same.”

Obama’s “Americanism” and ideology questioned by many in New Jersey

As in February, voters were asked to agree or disagree with a series of questions, including several about Obama and his administration. Twenty-five percent of voters now agree that the Obama Administration is “un-American” (up from 18 percent in February), and 39 percent concur that Obama is a socialist (up from 32 percent). More Republicans and Democrats now agree with both statements than in February, but agreement is much stronger among GOP voters.

A perception that the administration is un-American is also related to belief that Obama is Muslim, with 19 percent of this group identifying him as such. Only 9 percent of those who disagree with this statement identify Obama as Muslim. Further, 20 percent of those who call the president a socialist also say he is Muslim, while only 6 percent of other voters think so.

The connection between Obama’s perceived religion and voters’ negative feelings about his administration and ideology is very strong. Fully 40 percent of voters who say Obama is Muslim also think the administration is un-American; 64 percent say Obama is a socialist.

Anger at Washington unrelated to beliefs about Obama’s Religion

Asked if “thinking about the government in Washington makes me angry,” 59 percent agreed and 38 percent disagreed. This anger is unrelated to beliefs about Obama’s religion, Redlawsk said. Among voters who say Washington causes anger, 44 percent know Obama’s religion. Nearly as many (42 percent) who are not angry accurately identify Obama as Protestant. Twelve percent of those who are angry at Washington say Obama is a Muslim, compared to 11 percent who are not angry.

“The ‘Obama is Muslim’ discussion is not about Washington politics as such, but is directed at Obama himself,” said Redlawsk. “For the 12 percent of New Jersey voters who say that Obama is Muslim, the issue is personal. Most think he is a socialist and many consider him un-American, but they are no more likely to be angry at ‘the government in Washington’ than anyone else.”

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