Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory, according to results from a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll. The nationwide survey of registered voters asked Americans to evaluate four different political conspiracy theories: 56 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans say that at least one is likely true. This includes 36 percent who think that President Obama is hiding information about his background and early life, 25 percent who think that the government knew about 9/11 in advance, and 19 percent who think the 2012 Presidential election was stolen. Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to greater belief in political conspiracies.
The most popular of these conspiracy theories is the belief that President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life, which would include what’s often referred to “birtherism.” Thirty-six percent of Americans think this is probably true, including 64 percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats.
“This conspiracy theory is much more widely believed mostly because it’s been discussed so often,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and an analyst for the poll. “People tend to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire – so the more smoke they see, the more likely they are to believe that something is going on.”
However, belief in such conspiracies is not limited to the political right. Twenty-five percent of registered voters think it’s probably true that President Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks before they happened, a figure that includes 36 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 23 percent of those interviewed say that President Bush’s supporters committed significant voter fraud to win him the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio. Belief in this conspiracy theory is highest among Democrats, (37 percent say it is likely true), though 17 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans think so as well.
“It’s easy to discount conspiracy theories about 9/11,” said Cassino, “but this isn’t some fringe belief. Trutherism is alive and well in America, and is only going to get stronger as memories of the actual event fade.”
Still even current events aren’t immune to conspiracy theories. Twenty percent of Americans think that President Obama’s supporters committed significant voter fraud in the 2012 elections. Thirty-six percent of Republicans think this is the case, but only 4 percent of Democrats do.
“These beliefs in election fraud pop up after every election,” said Cassino. “Americans tend to be politically isolated, and some can’t fathom that there are people who actually voted for the other guy, so the only way he could have won is through cheating.”
In general, higher levels of actual knowledge about politics tends to reduce belief in conspiracy theories. In the poll, respondents were asked a series of four questions about current events, and respondents who were able to answer more questions correctly were less likely to endorse the conspiracy theories. Fifteen percent of people who got none of the questions right thought that three or four of the conspiracies were likely, compared to three percent of those who answered three or four correctly. Education also tended to reduce belief in the conspiracy theories.
However, the relationship between current events knowledge and belief in conspiracy theories is conditional on partisanship. Among Democrats, each question answered correctly reduces the likelihood of endorsing at least one of the conspiracy theories by seven points. Among independents, each additional question reduces it by two points. For Republicans, though, each additional question answered correctly tends to increase belief in at least one of the theories by two points.
“There are several possible explanations for this,” said Cassino. “It could be that more conspiracy-minded Republicans seek out more information, or that the information some Republicans seek out just tends to reinforce these myths.”
Belief in these conspiracies is higher among young African-Americans than whites. For instance, 59 percent of African-Americans think that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened, and 75 percent of African-Americans think at least one of the theories is likely true, compared with 62 percent of whites.
“Groups that feel more distanced from the political process are more likely to believe that sinister forces are at work,” said Cassino. “These figures tell us more about a lack of trust in the political process than acceptance of particular conspiracies.”
The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 814 registered voters was conducted nationally by telephone with both landline and cell phones from December 10 through December 16, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/-3.4 percentage points.