Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Fallows was wrong"

As I'm still waiting for my missing post to reappear (or be told by Blogger it has gone to a more heavenly cloud than The Cloud), I think it's appropriate to do a post on something else that is missing (and of interest to me) in another case: data.

James Fallows includes at the end of a recent post a reference to his earlier claim about the impact of President Obama's release of his long-form birth certificate on the ridiculous debate over the President's place of birth:
"As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, I guessed that even the long-firm birth certificate wouldn't change the minds of many hard-core birthers. I am very glad that real-world results are different and that, on this issue at least, actual evidence seems to have had some effect."
However, a look at Andrew Sullivan's post on The Dish with its charming "Fallows was wrong" suggests to me that Fallows shouldn't give up on his claim just based on that post. [note: I'm not sure if Sullivan's post was the sole piece of information that swayed Fallows.  It doesn't matter for my following points.]  Sullivan shares the following poll:
Apparently, this shows that Obama revealing his long-form birth certificate made an impact in changing people's minds.  As suggested in some opinions of others later shared by Sullivan (see here) the source of the change may be more about the killing of Bin Laden than the release of the long-form birth certificate.  It would be difficult to tease those two possibilities apart given the events were only separated by days.

But even if one disregards the possible influence of Bin Laden's death, it would be easy to be unconvinced by the data above because:
  • It's just one poll.  It could be an outlier.
  • There is no indication that the differences between the two years are statistically significant.  
  • It is possible that opinions on the issue fluctuate greatly over short periods of time so the recent poll may not be an accurate stable measure.
  • It compares two time points one year apart.  
It's the last point that really jumps out at me.  It is possible some or all of the above change occurred prior to Obama's releasing his long-form certificate.  One year leaves plenty of time for opinion to change for a variety of reasons and makes it very difficult to pinpoint the cause of any change -- a lot happens in one year.  For example, possibly some simply grew to accept Obama as President because "time can heal" and they became less motivated to believe he was not born in the US.

Polls from multiple time points, especially including one from a "before" time point far more proximate to Obama's announcement, would help address the above issues.  Sure, no matter how close the before and after polls one could argue that there was another cause.  But if there was a sudden and unusual significant change (compared to previous changes in opinion over comparable periods of time) between the days or even weeks before the announcement and those afterward a more solid argument could be made it was the result of Obama releasing his long-form certificate.

I realize in this case the ideal set of polling data might be unavailable.  Regardless, even just finding a more proximate comparison point than 1 year ago would make a big difference.  It appears that Public Policy Polling has such data (a link to a PDF report is provided in the relevant post here).  PPP writes:
"In February we found that 51% of Republican primary voters thought Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Now with the release of his birth certificate only 34% of GOP partisans fall into that camp... "
Again, I'd like to see more data.  But at least this offers a more reasonable point of comparison.  On the side, while PPP's data adds evidence that there was a change of opinion as a result of Obama's announcement, 34% of Republican primary voters still thinking Obama was not born in the United States also suggests there remains a large number of people in a "post-factual world".

So, the release of the the long form birth certificate may indeed have changed some minds of those who were previously convinced Obama was born outside of the US.  However, the data shared by Sullivan in the referenced post doesn't answer the question, even if you disregard the possible impact of Bin Laden's death -- at least another serving of data from The Dish is needed.

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