Does Perception Trump Reality in Politics?

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 5 2014 1:46 PM

Does Perception Trump Reality in Politics?

465648093-representative-greg-walden-republican-of-oregon-and
"Hey, it's about perception."

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Here's Chris Cillizza on the Congressional Budget Office and Obamacare:

My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be. And, I'm far from the only one. In the wake of my piece yesterday, I got two e-mails from very senior Democratic campaign operatives. Here they are verbatim.

Personally, it would make me very sad to have a job that was more about explaining who was perceived to be right about important arguments than a job that's about trying to explain who is in fact right.

Advertisement

But an interesting issue this raises is whether it's really true that perception often trumps reality in campaign politics. My read of the literature is that it mostly doesn't work that way, at least not in big general elections. "The fundamentals"—most of all the state of the economy—tend to drive election outcomes. Not exactly because "reality" is what matters most. It doesn't make much sense for voters to say "the economy's doing badly so I blame the president and so I'm also going to vote against state legislature candidates of the president's party," but that's how elections appear to work.

So if you want to know whether Mary Landrieu is likely to get re-elected in Louisiana in 2014, you probably want to look at polls in Louisiana and whether her opponent's won statewide elections in the past and maybe whether Louisiana is doing better or worse than the country as a whole economically and a bunch of other things. But how a Congressional Budget Office report from February could be characterized in a television ad is just very unlikely to matter. On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office report does give us some interesting insights into how the health care bill is likely to affect people's lives and the economy. That's a pretty good reason to write about it!

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.