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Polls, Reporting on “Ground Zero Mosque” May Mislead

A group of Muslim businessmen and religious leaders have proposed building a 12-story facility called Cordoba House (or sometimes alternatively Park 51) in Lower Manhattan. The project would include a number of resources — “a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants,” its developers say — in addition to places of worship, probably including a mosque. The goal of the project is ostensibly to improve Muslim-West relations and show New York a more modern face of Islam; on the group’s website, for instance, most women involved with the project are pictured in contemproary Western business dress.

But the location of the proposed facility, in Lower Manhattan two blocks from Ground Zero, has drawn both local and national opposition, with a Republican candidate for governor in New York, Carl Paladino, going to far as to say he’d use eminent domain laws to block its construction. The opposition gained momentum today when the Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish-American group, came out against the facility, albeit in a somewhat nuanced way. “Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam,” a statement by the group read in part. “But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”

Local, statewide, and national polling, furthermore, has shown majorities of New York City residents, New York state residents and Americans opposed to construction of the facility.

There are several things to unpack here. First, a bit of a geography lesson is in order.

To be clear, Cordoba House is “in the neighborhood” of Ground Zero, and this seems to have been a deliberate choice made by its developers. But to suggest that Cordoba House is “at” Ground Zero, as some reporting and opposition groups have, is either negligent or willfully misleading.

The World Trade Center campus, shown in purple in the map below, is quite large, roughly two-tenths of a mile by two-tenths of a mile across. Eleven different streets abut or intersect it, and there are numerous points of access by foot, by cars or taxi, or on public transportation networks.

(For an interactive version of the map, see here.)

Cordoba House, shown in a red outline on the map, would be on Park Place between West Broadway and Church Street. Park Place does not intersect Ground Zero; instead, it runs parallel to it, two blocks to its north.

It is unlikely that very many people commuting to the World Trade Center site would pass by Cordoba House — walking on that particular stretch of Park Place would not be a natural route except in unusual circumstances. Nor, does it appear to me, would Cordoba House be visible from ground level anywhere at the World Trade Center complex. The Federal Office Building across from Vesey Street on Ground Zero’s northern perimeter is sixteen stories high, as is the office building between Barclay Street and Park Place; they would presumably block the view of the more diminutive Cordoba House, which although somewhat architecturally daring does not contain minarets or other spire-like features that would give it greater prominence than an ordinary, 12-story building. Like dozens and dozens of other buildings, and several other places of worship near to Ground Zero, it would be quite well concealed among Lower Manhattan’s dense street grid.

Interestingly, although the Quinnipiac poll showed a majority of New York City residents opposed to the project, a 46-36 plurality of Manhattanites were in favor of it. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but one might be that they have a superior understanding of the borough’s geography. It is not as though there’s just one road to Ground Zero and some huge mosque would be built right next door to it.

Although the Quinnipiac Poll described Cordoba House fairly completely — as “a Muslim mosque and cultural center” — the Rasmussen poll describes it merely as “a mosque near the 9/11 Ground Zero site”, omitting any description of its multipurpose nature. It is hard to say how much difference this makes, but Rasmussen, which often has problems with question wording, would probably do more to inform its respondents by referring to it as Quinnipiac did.

Another problem with both the Quinnipiac and Ramsussen polls is that it’s a bit ambiguous what it means to “support” or “oppose” the project in this context. I imagine there is a spectrum of about five different positions that one might take on Cordoba House:

1) I support the project: its goals seem laudable, and it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

2) I am indifferent about the project itself — I can see the arguments both for it and against it. But this is a free country, and the developers certainly have a right to express themselves.

3) I’d rather that the project weren’t built, especially so near to Ground Zero. But it’s certainly not the government’s business to stop its construction.

4) I’m opposed to the project and hope that it isn’t built. But I’m indifferent about whether or not the City should act to stop it.

5) I’m definitely opposed to the project, and the City should exercise its authority to prevent it from being built.

Arguably, responses 3 through 5 all qualify as “opposition” to the project, whereas only the first one indicates clear support. But one’s personal position on the mosque is not necessarily the same as thinking that the City should take affirmative steps to prohibit its construction by eminent domain laws by or other means, a position held by only those in Group 5. This is somewhat analogous to asking: “do you support or oppose flag-burning?”. Without additional context, it would be quite natural for someone to say they opposed it, but they might nevertheless consider it to be Constitutionally protected activity. Likewise, while Cordoba House is clearly not popular, none of the polling speaks to whether a proposal like Paladino’s would find much support.

A final ambiguity — and not one the pollsters can’t do anything about — is the question of just who “owns” Ground Zero. Is it the whole country? The residents of New York State? Of New York City? Just the people of Manhattan? Just the people who live or work in the neighborhood or who were personally impacted by 9/11? I’m a New Yorker now, but I wasn’t at the time of the September 11th attacks; should my opinion count less than someone who was?

But instead of a considered discussion over these issues, we have a battle of 140-character soundbytes, and polling and reporting that often does not do justice to the nuances of the issue.

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