Over at The Upshot, Neil Irwin wrote an interesting but very annoying article, How Is the Economy Doing? It May Depend on Your Party, and $1. It’s about how people’s opinions about the state of the economy are highly dependent upon who is in the White House. Ask a Republican right now and they will say it is terrible. Ask a Democrat back in 2005 and they would have said that it was terrible. But this is just a matter of political signaling — nothing more. Let’s start with the the the more general issue and then get into the details.
How the economy doing is doing not a concrete thing. If you asked me how the economy was doing, I would say so-so. Yet the unemployment rate is 5%! The unemployment rate was 4% at the beginning of 2000 and I would have said it was great. What’s the difference? Well, the employment-to-population rate for people between the ages 25-54 was roughly 82% in 2000 and it is barely over 77% today. That represents roughly 5 million people. There are a huge number of people who have given up. Claiming that Republicans are just being partisan when they say the economy is not doing well is questionable.
The crux of Irwin’s article has to do with recent studies that gave people cash when they got answers right. So whereas a Republican might normally say that unemployment is worse today than when Obama came into office, if you give him a buck for being right, he’ll correctly say that unemployment is lower. Now this is presented as good news for democracy and bad news for polling. This is nonsense.
What’s going on is that the partisans (Democrat or Republican) are signaling in the uncompensated case that they really don’t like the people in power. And why shouldn’t they?! We have the statistics on the unemployment rate. We don’t need to ask people what they they think it is; they can just surf over to the St Louis Fed and get whatever information they want. Do half of Republicans really think that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim terrorist? Not really. But they are signalling that they really really don’t like him. And that and not the state of the economy is what they are going to be voting based upon.
Similarly, we already know that polling is a highly questionable tool. Remember back in the 2012 presidential campaign? In the first debate, Obama didn’t shine. Romney came off pretty good. (I still thought he was an idiot, of course.) And his poll numbers surged. But as I wrote at the time, that wasn’t because Obama voters had switched over. It was because conservative voters who in the end were already going to vote for Romney suddenly felt confident enough to switch form “undecided” to “Romney.” If you look at the polls of the time, you will see that Romney’s numbers went up; Obama’s did not go down. What was going on was political signaling. Before, conservatives were signaling that they weren’t that keen on Romney.
Look at the unfortunate Eric Harwood. He’s totally wrong about the “billions and trillions of dollars” that we spend “illegal aliens” and refugees. But it wouldn’t matter if he knew the facts. For all I know, he does know the facts. But he’s just angry. He’s involved in an act of political signaling that those liberals don’t care about people like him and that conservatives like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump do. It’s not just politicians who engage in political theater.
So who cares that deep down most people know the facts. They don’t vote to save the world from global warming. They don’t vote to make sure that veterans get healthcare. Their votes are an act of political signaling that they are for the “right” kind of people. And in the case of working class conservatives, they’d better hope that they don’t get their way.