For most people, the “birther” conspiracy—centered on the belief that Barack Obama wasn’t a natural-born American citizen—ended when the president released his long-form birth certificate to the public last April. Birther claims were always bogus, but the release of the birth certificate was supposed to nail the coffin shut.
For a while, it did. According to YouGov’s Adam Berinsky, the proportion of Americans who said that Obama was born in the United States rose from 55 percent before April 2011 to 67 percent afterward. Likewise, for Republicans—the group most likely to believe the conspiracy—the number who said Obama was born a citizen increased from 30 percent to 47 percent. Still low, but a real improvement.
Recently, Berinsky polled the question again, focusing on Republicans to see if their attitudes have changed in the ten months since the president released his birth certificate. Far from getting better, Republicans have actually doubled-down on the belief that Obama is foreign born:
Berinksy points to the durability of rumors in the face of lasting information as the culprit. As he writes, “Rumors tend to be sticky and merely repeating a rumor—even in the context of debunking that mistruth—increases its power.” Likewise, political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have found that corrections often fail to reduce misperceptions among the target ideological group and that corrections can even backfire and strengthen false beliefs.
In addition to both factors, I wouldn’t be surprised if election-year rhetoric plays into it as well. Up until recently, the GOP hopefuls have struggled to distinguish themselves, and some candidates—like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich—have centered their attacks on the assumed “foreignness” of President Obama. The slogan “Believe in America,” for example, doesn’t actually make sense unless you assume that the president isn’t American enough to lead the country. And claims that Obama is a “Saul Alinsky radical” who “apologizes for America” and wants to adopt “European socialism” are nods to the myth that Obama is foreign-born (and thus, untrustworthy).
As the election heats up, and this rhetoric becomes more intense, I wouldn’t be surprised if the proportion of Republican birthers increases from its current high.