For some time I have been thinking about these birther polls and that they are probably not representative of the real degree of birther sentiment in the population. It’s rather like the South Carolina Democratic Primary where a fellow that no one had even heard of, who had no campaign, no advertising, no web site, won the Democratic nomination for Senate over a well-established state legislator. Something beyond folks wanting Alvin Greene was going on.
An article at the Scoop/Daily web site from July 2009 puts things into perspective about birther polls. If one were to excerpt one main idea from the article it is that people will guess a poll answer even if they know nothing about the question. Just by asking the question, the poll raises suspicion in the mind of the respondent that there may be a problem with Obama’s citizenship.
Public opinion research has shown consistently that survey takers almost never skip questions no matter how uninformed they are (and whether or not an option to say “I don’t know” is presented). As a rule, respondents just guess, using whatever contextual clues are available to them. They will reduce the question to analogies and terms they can relate to, which in survey research are called heuristics.