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How We View Our Reality Shapes Our Politics. But Facts Still Matter.

Earlier this year, National Journal politics editor Josh Kraushaar noted that President Trump had benefited politically from the perception that the economy was improving more than it had during the Obama administration. “We’ll see if it lasts,” he tweeted, “but in politics perception is reality.”

The claim that perception is reality has long been a maxim in politics. That’s particularly true as it relates to the economy. And with the 2020 presidential election ramping up, how Americans feel about their financial well-being, and the country’s, has come to the foreground again. But is perception really reality? Or does reality matter — regardless of how people feel?

Let’s start with the economy, as the relationship between economic performance and electoral results is one of the better tested and understood findings in political science. Generally speaking, the relationship plays out something like this: When the economy is growing, the president’s party tends to be rewarded with more votes. When there’s a recession, the president’s party tends to get tossed from office. Voter anger over the collapsing economy helped put Barack Obama in office with large Democratic congressional majorities in 2008, for example, and when the economic situation failed to improve during Obama’s first two years, voters then turned against Democrats in 2010. There’s also some evidence of this same dynamic playing out on the international stage, with the fortunes of ruling parties tied to economic performance.

That should all be pretty intuitive. Voters know whether they’re doing well financially, and whether their situation has improved or worsened since a particular politician or party came to power. They’ll hold those in government accountable — even if the president and his party can’t truly do much to change the economy in the short term.

So, at first glance, reality matters.1

Of course, voters also see descriptions of economic performance on the news, and they hear stories from family and friends — their impression of the economy isn’t shaped solely by their personal checkbooks. So what happens when there’s a disconnect between the news they’re seeing and reality? Can you convince people of something that isn’t true?

Several groups of scholars have looked into this question. They’ve found that people’s beliefs can trump reality in certain circumstances, but only modestly. Political scientist John Zaller found that, in some years, the “reported economy” seemed to do a better job of predicting election results than the “real economy,” while in other years, the opposite was true. Generally, however, he found that the “real economy” — as measured by government economic growth statistics rather than people’s beliefs — was more closely tied to election results.

But, again, there is some wiggle room. Take the 1992 election. At the time, everyone thought the economy was in shambles. The recession had technically ended in 1991, and there was some evidence that the economy was expanding again. But the media painted a picture of economic woe; political scientist Marc Hetherington found a strong disconnect between the media’s negative reporting on the economy and how the economy was actually behaving. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the economy was growing by more than 3 percent annually by late 1992; roughly the same pace it was growing in 1996, when voters rewarded Bill Clinton with a second presidential term. Hetherington’s research suggests that the relentlessly bad coverage of the economy affected voters’ perceptions at the ballot box. George H.W. Bush substantially underperformed in his second presidential bid and became the first Republican since Herbert Hoover to be denied a second term.

Bush’s loss probably wasn’t all due to the economy (it’s hard for a party to hold onto the White House for three terms, no less four, as Republicans were attempting in 1992), but at least that year, and at least partly, perception was reality.

Research has also found that perceptions can have other effects, short of totally overruling reality. A study of television coverage in the mid-20th century by political scientist B.K. Song, for example, showed that television news increased the importance of the national economy in people’s presidential votes. News coverage made existing facts more important — reinforcing reality more than negating it. Dhavan Shah and others found similar effects in a series of American elections, demonstrating that media coverage provides voters with a basis for evaluating presidential candidates and economic conditions.

At least using the economy as a lens, the lesson is that perception is not reality — reality is reality — but perception is part of reality. To use a noneconomic example: Trump’s consistent labeling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” hasn’t made it so — a majority of Americans think Mueller’s investigation is “fair” — but it has seemed to convince Trump’s base, the slice of the electorate predisposed to rally to Trump’s version of events.

Indeed, that example is a better illustration of the relationship between perceptions and reality as far as politics is concerned than the blanket “perception is reality.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan’s research shows the persistent influence that false perceptions can have on voters. People can come to believe something false if it is reinforced by their information networks, and efforts to dislodge false information through fact-checking or other means can sometimes cause a person to dig into their beliefs instead of change them. In the 2016 election, for instance, Nyhan found that the prevalence of fake news reports and Russian Twitter bots didn’t alter people’s views or the outcome of the election all that much. Rather, whatever people already believed largely prevailed.

This reflects the changing scope of political journalism. How Americans receive political news has changed dramatically in recent decades and has perhaps created more siloed news environments. The rise of cable and internet news sources has meant that viewers have far more choices in how they learn about the world (even while newspaper subscriptions plummet), and increasingly, people opt to receive highly specialized content tailored to their interests. More and more, we get our news from social media feeds that are molded to our own preferences, reinforcing our own world views. It’s become very easy to learn about the world in a way that never requires us to question any of our previously held assumptions — we just hear our own views echoed back at us. In such an environment, the power of perception may be growing in importance.

Case in point: According to SurveyMonkey’s Consumer Confidence Index, there’s currently a vast gap between Democratic and Republican impressions of the economy — roughly 40 points on a 100-point scale. These different partisan impressions of the economy aren’t new, but they are more pronounced. Reality still holds a lot of sway, but perhaps not quite as much as it used to.

Footnotes

  1. There’s also the question of how you know what the reality is. What is the best measure of the economy, for example? Gross domestic product? The unemployment rate? And should you look at these metrics in an absolute sense or how they’ve changed? That’s a subject of great debate when it comes to predicting electoral outcomes.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “The Inevitable Party: Why Attempts to Kill the Party System Fail and How they Weaken Democracy.”

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