Does Perception Trump Reality in Politics?

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

Does Perception Trump Reality in Politics?

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"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.

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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.

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