WASHINGTON _ After years of battling false claims and viral e-ails alleging that he is a Muslim, President Barack Obama hasn't gotten far among Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi _ about half still believe he is Muslim and about one in four believe his parents' interracial marriage should have been illegal, a new poll shows.
The automated survey by Public Policy Polling, conducted over the weekend in advance of Tuesday's GOP primaries in both states, showed Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich locked in a fierce, three-way battle for votes.
But in an indication of where these two states fall on the political spectrum, the polls also found continued skepticism among Republicans about Obama's religion and that a substantial number of GOP voters continue to believe interracial marriage should be illegal.
The poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 52 percent said they believe Obama is a Muslim, 36 percent weren't sure and only 12 percent said they believe he is a Christian. He fared slightly better in Alabama, where 45 percent said he is a Muslim, 41 percent weren't sure, and 14 percent said he is a Christian.
Recalling his childhood, Obama has said his family did not go to church every week, but said his faith grew as he got older and that his Christian beliefs have guided his career in public service.
Various anti-Obama activist groups have repeatedly sought to perpetuate the myth that he is a "secret Muslim," and with some success. A University of Georgia poll conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign showed that, despite great efforts by Obama and his team to refute the claim, a persistent 20 percent of Americans continued to believe he was a Muslim.
Obama also is the son of a white mother and a black father, a marriage that remains objectionable to many Republican voters in two of the last states forced by the Supreme Court to allow interracial marriage. A 1967 court ruling on the case of a Virginia couple struck down laws against interracial marriage still on the books in 16 states, including Mississippi and Alabama.
A few states, including Alabama, kept the laws even though they could no longer be enforced. Alabama finally repealed its law in 2000 through a public referendum, though 40 percent of the electorate voted in favor of keeping interracial marriage illegal.
The PPP poll released Monday showed some changes, with 67 percent of Alabama Republicans saying they believe interracial marriage should be legal, though 21 percent said it still should be against the law. In Mississippi, 54 percent said it should be allowed, while 29 percent said it should remain illegal.
The preferred Republican candidate of those opposed to interracial marriage? Newt Gingrich. In Mississippi, Gingrich led Romney among that group 40-27 percent, and held a 38-27 percent advantage in Alabama.
The PPP poll used automated telephone interviews on March 10-11 to survey 1,256 likely Republican voters in Mississippi and Alabama. Such surveys are not considered as reliable as live interviews because they are automated and cannot make use of mobile telephone numbers. The poll sampling error for Mississippi is 3.8 percentage points and for Alabama is 4 percentage points.