A Muslim President? Assessing the Causes and Consequences of Misperceptions about Barack Obama's Faith in the 2008 Presidential Election
33 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 31 Aug 2009
Date Written: August 27, 2009
There is no question that racial and ethnic attitudes did matter in the 2008 presidential election. However, as the country elected its first black president, it was not feelings about African-Americans that were most important. Instead, it was attitudes toward Muslims, Arabs, and societal outgroups in general that seemed to be of greatest consequence. The belief that Obama was, in fact, a closet Muslim was held by a non-trivial percentage of people. In a survey experiment, we show that this misperception seems to have been prompted by cues about Obama’s middle name and his childhood religious background. The effect of these cues was conditioned by individuals’ levels of political sophistication and political predispositions. This misperception about Obama’s faith then had a significant and relatively strong negative impact on the likelihood of voting for him. In models of 2008 vote choice that controlled for nearly all of the usual suspects in presidential vote models, we found that viewing Obama as Muslim had a strong and statistically significant negative effect on the likelihood of voting for Obama. That effect, not surprisingly, was concentrated primarily among individuals with negative opinions of Muslims and Arabs. Quite strikingly, the belief that Obama was Muslim and feelings about Muslims and Arabs had much stronger effects on vote choice in 2008 than did attitudes toward African Americans.
Keywords: Obama, Muslim, misperception, survey experiment, voting
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation