Rep. Michele Bachmann’s declaration on Wednesday that so-called “birthers” should move on to other issues will relieve Republican strategists anxious that the revived disinformation campaign over President Obama’s birthplace could damage the GOP in the eyes of moderate voters.
Bachmann's statement was a reversal for the Minnesota Republican, who as recently as last week had encouraged voters to doubt the president’s origins. Questions about whether the president was born in the United States—a constitutional requirement for election—have been back in the media spotlight thanks to potential celebrity-candidate Donald Trump's vocal evangelizing of them.
Paperwork attesting to Obama's birth in Hawaii, three years after the Pacific archipelago became the nation's 50th state, has been widely available online since the 2008 campaign. Trump has questioned the authenticity of the documents, but the nonpartisan FactCheck.org, an arm of the Annenberg Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania, has provided a point-by-point rebuttal of those arguments.
The conversion of Bachmann upon being shown a copy of Obama's birth certificate on ABC's Good Morning America, follows pushback from former President George W. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and other GOP heavyweights. Some GOP operatives said they hope the combination will drive a stake into the heart of an issue that makes the GOP look extreme.
“I think the birther issue is very destructive for the Republican Party,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “I don’t think you see any responsible Republican official talking about it.”
Focusing on the president’s birthplace is a two-fold problem. One, it’s not popular: An early April Fox News poll reported only 40 percent of registered voters think there’s cause to wonder about the president’s birthplace. Fifty-one percent thought doing so is “nuts.”
More importantly, focusing on the president’s birthplace distracts the party from focusing on his economic track record, an issue voters care much more about. Republicans need to make the next election about deficits and jobs, said Mackowiak.
“If we’re fighting on those issues, that’s turf that strategically we can win on, not just with the base and tea party, but among independents,” he said. “These other issues are out on the extreme.”
Polls indicate birtherism might have traction among some hardline conservatives, but it alienates moderate voters in the suburbs, according to G. Terry Madonna, a pollster with Franklin & Marshall College in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. Even those who might be willing to question the president’s birthplace aren’t going to base their decision for president on it, he argued, particularly after Obama has already served a four-year term.
“I don’t think it means anything to anybody, particularly moderate voters,” Madonna said. “I don’t think they’re going to use that as a rationale to vote for or against the president.”
On the other hand, some Republicans said the attention drawn by birtherism and its chief promoter, Donald Trump, does carry a silver lining for other GOP presidential hopefuls. Top-tier contenders like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have escaped intense media scrutiny in recent weeks, even amid announcements that they were creating exploratory committees, because of the focus on Trump.
“For me, every day Romney’s not in the crosshairs is a good day,” said former GOP congressman Tom Davis. “Because traditionally you turn on your front-runners. All the ammo gets focused on the front-runner.”
Whether the issue damages Republicans could depend to some extent on whether Trump, whose true intentions many pundits remain skeptical of, actually runs for president, and if he proves to have any staying power. Keeping birtherism in the limelight isn’t good for the GOP, but most strategists doubt it will last once the primary battle kicks into high gear.
“I think in the long-run, it doesn’t make a dent,” said GOP consultant Mike Murphy. “The birther thing is a sideshow issue.”