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The Difference Between Birthers and Truthers

Over at Real Clear Politics, David Paul Kuhn has a pretty good take on the recent Research 2000 / Daily Kos survey revealing that 58 percent of Repulicans either don’t believe or aren’t certain that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Kuhn points out that in a Rasmussen Reports poll in 2007, 61 percent of Democrats either believed that George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, or weren’t certain that he didn’t.

I agree with Kuhn that there are lowlifes and imbeceles of every political persuasion, and that they ought to be treated with equal scorn. I also agree that the Birther “movement” has gotten far more media attention than it deserves. That’s one reason that I’ve shied away from talking about it. People like Orly Taitz, the Russian-born dentist/real-estate-agent/attorney who has become the birthers’ unofficial spokeswoman, ought to be institutionalized somewhere rather than being given a platform on cable news.

However, I don’t buy that the two phenomena are entirely equivalent. For one, there are some quantitative differences. In the Research 2000 poll, only 7 percent of Democrats have doubts about Barack Obama’s origins. That compares, in the Rasmussen poll, to 26 percent of Republicans who had doubts about George Bush’s role in 9/11, and 43 percent who had doubts about whether the CIA had advanced knowledge of the attacks. Trutherism is pathetically widespread — somewhat more so than birtherism — and is also somewhat more “bipartisan” than its counterpart. By the way, I’d expect that you’d find a pretty wide overlap between the two groups — that controlling for party ID and other factors, truthers are much more likely to be birthers and vice versa.

The other difference is qualitative. I can’t recall any sitting Congressmen raising doubts about 9/11 (if I’ve forgotten one or two instances, I’m sure someone will remind me in the comments). On the other hand, quite a few Republican Congressmen have mimicked the birthers’ doubts about Obama’s place of origin. So, indeed, let’s not give Taitz any more facetime. Instead, let’s give Senators Jim Inhofe and Richard Shelby, and Represenatives John Campbell, Marsha Blackburn, Bill Posey, Roy Blunt and Dan Burton the ridicule they deserve for enabling these unpatriotic and malicious conspiracy theories.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.