Statistician Says Obama’s Mosque Comments Not So Risky

Nate Silver praises a Fox News poll

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has an interesting take on Obama’s “risky” speech on the proposed community center and mosque near the World Trade Center site. While most reports on President Obama’s comments, and his subsequent softening of those comments over the weekend, claimed he took a political risk, Silver argues that Obama’s words—particularly as they were clarified/watered-down Saturday—might not be so out of step with how the majority of the nation is feeling. And, thus, they might not have been so risky.

First, a look at some of the reports pushing the idea that Obama’s views ran counter to those of the majority of Americans. From

Obama’s stance runs counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans, according to polls. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released this week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the mosque plan while just 29 percent approved.

And from Politico:

But the attacks on what is now nationally known as the “Ground Zero mosque” — it is a few blocks north of the site — also stand in for a broader turn in the cultural politics of the right, in which some of the social issues that served as the emotional core of candidates’ appeals have lost their power. A recent CNN poll showing that 68 percent of Americans oppose the construction of the mosque also found that about half think there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. No political genius is required to decide which issue to run on.

Silver aptly points out that this poll queried folks on the emotional rather than the constitutional aspects of the debate: “…there has been considerable ambiguity in most polls on the topic, which did not distinguish one’s personal position on the tastefulness of the mosque from one’s view about whether or not the developers had the right to build it.” And it is this distinction that the president drew on Saturday when clarifying his remarks from the night before. From The New York Times’s report:

“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” Mr. Obama said. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

Surprisingly, Silver highlights a Fox News poll that took a deeper look at the issue:

The only poll to have gotten the distinction right, believe it or not, is the one from Fox News. They asked two separate questions about the planned development. First, they asked:

A group of Muslims plans to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Do you think it is appropriate to build a mosque and Islamic center near ground zero, or do you think it would be wrong to do so?

Only 30 percent of respondents said “appropriate”, while 64 percent said “wrong” — consistent with the apparent unpopularity of the mosque in other polls.

But Fox also followed up with this question:

Regardless of whether you think it is appropriate to build a mosque near ground zero, do you think the Muslim group has the right to build a mosque there, or don’t they have that right?

Here, the numbers were nearly reversed: 61 percent of respondents, including 69 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans, said the developers had the right to build the mosque; 34 percent said they did not.

He sums up the results as follows:

Essentially, public opinion on this issue is divided into thirds. About a third of the country thinks that not only do the developers have a right to build the mosque, but that it’s a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Another third think that while the development is in poor taste, the developers nevertheless have a right to build it. And the final third think that not only is the development inappropriate, but the developers have no right to build it — perhaps they think that the government should intervene to stop it in some fashion.

Perhaps the president saw these very figures between Friday and Saturday himself, and thus offered his more nuanced and disappointing-to-some comments from the gulf. Perhaps not. Either way, the question Fox asked is an appropriate one, and its results offer a fuller picture of public opinion than the more sweeping “two-thirds-disagree” narrative taking hold.

In an issue as charged as this is becoming, it is important to keep the picture as full and nuanced as possible. We would encourage those wanting to use public opinion statistics in this story not to neglect the Fox poll’s results.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.