Loaded Questions

Obama’s a Muslim? PPP Polls in South Appear Designed to Bring Out Bias

Michelle Cottle asks why PPP is asking only Southerners about evolution and interracial marriage.

It’s that time again! With the political world returning its attention to the voting action in Dixie, the bulk of the nation is indulging once more in that most satisfying of political pastimes: jeering at what a pack of racist, ass-backward idjits they think populate the Deep South.

Much as the South Carolina primary had folks tsk-tsking about how radical and angry folks seem in the old Confederacy, this week’s theme is the absurd religiosity/irretrievable ignorance of the electorate in Alabama and Mississippi.

Driving the chatter is a March 10–11 poll conducted by PPP, the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling group out of North Carolina. Surveying Republicans in both states, PPP not only determined what percentage favors which candidates, it also unearthed such rich nuggets as which contender is the top pick of voters who don’t believe in evolution (Rick Santorum), who think interracial marriage should be illegal (Newt Gingrich), and who are convinced President Obama is a bona fide Muslim (Newt in Mississippi; a three-way tie among Newt, Mitt, and Rick in Alabama).

Forget Newt vs. Rick. The raw numbers to emerge from this poll have caused a stir on their own. In Alabama, they tell us, 45 percent of respondents think Obama is a Muslim. In Mississippi, the number is an even more scorn-inspiring 52 percent. As for evolution, 60 percent of Alabamans aren’t buying it, compared with 66 percent of Mississippians. The views on miscegenation aren’t quite so jarring—only 21 percent of Alabamans and 29 percent of Mississippians think interracial marriage should be illegal—but are sneer-worthy nonetheless.

Now no one appreciates the absurdity of the South’s retrograde conservatism more than I. For all its many charms, the “real America” that Sarah Palin et al. so mythologize sports its fair share of warts, zits, and infected boils.

That said, I do get my back up when people seem to be taking cheap shots at my tribe. And this PPP report has all the earmarks of a poll taken with the specific, if perhaps unconscious, goal of confirming all of the nation’s very worst biases about the South.

So an average of one in four respondents still can’t get with that whole ebony-and-ivory thing. Appallingly racist? You betcha. But can someone please explain to me what this has to do with the current Republican presidential race? Discussions of gay marriage I understand. But interracial marriage—since when is this a relevant topic in American politics?

Similarly, why do we need to know respondents’ views on evolution? Last time I checked, not even Santorum was waving the creationism (or intelligent design) banner in this race.

Which could explain why, when I went back and looked through the rest of PPP’s polls from this year, I couldn’t find any other states that were asked about evolution. Ditto questions about whether Obama is a Muslim. And in only one other state did I see voters being asked about interracial marriage: South Carolina. (Surprise!) I suppose it’s possible I missed one or two. But let us concede that these sorts of questions are in no way standard fare.

Indeed, for the most part, PPP’s Republican POTUS polling has focused on the sorts of electoral nuts and bolts you’d expect: what is your opinion of candidate X? The area of policy you most care about is Y. Do you worry more about ideological purity or electability?

This is not to say that other electorates weren’t asked quirky questions. But invariably, those questions related in some way to, if not a campaign topic du jour (like Michiganders’ views on contraception or Floridians’ feelings about the establishment of a Gingrichian moon colony), then at least part of the broader news landscape (the perfection of Tim Tebow or attitudes about the rich).

On the flip side, missing from this year’s polling were questions about how, say, Arizona or Colorado Republicans feel about Hispanics—immigration, unlike mixed-race couples, actually being a hot political potato. I mean, if we’re going to plumb voters’ innermost prejudices, why not dissect those likely to have real policy implications going forward? Last time I checked, none of the Republican field was looking to split up David Bowie and Iman. But rounding up millions of Latino children and kicking ’em back across the border is an oft-debated possibility.

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No question, the results of this PPP poll kick-started the party this week, providing fodder for another round of smug cocktail-party chatter about the similarities between Hattiesburg and Kabul. But every state has its not-so-admirable biases. And asking Republicans in these particular states—and evidently only these states—about these particular issues smacks not so much of political research as cultural profiling.