Public Opinion and the Economy: What are the Lessons?

A new Washington Post-ABC poll focuses on voter perceptions of whether Obama or Romney would do more to improve the economy (poll results here, discussion here).

When asked “Who would do more to advance the economic interests of middle-class Americans,” Obama wins over Romney, 50% to 44%.  When asked who would do more to advance the economic interests of financial interests, Romney wins 56% to 33%. When asked who would do the most to advance the interests of the wealthy, Romney wins 68% to 21%.

Thus far, a win for Obama. The take home message: there is a strong class division at play. To the extent that Obama can exploit class divisions, he will be successful (after all, we are a middle class nation and as the poll reveals, the majority believe that Obama will advance the interests of the middle-class).

But this lesson seems to be the wrong one to glean from the poll results. When white voters are asked “Who would do more to advance the economic interest of you and your family?” the poll reveals the following results:

  •  Working class: Romney 44%, Obama 42%
  • Comfortable in current class: Romney 49%, Obama 41%
  • Middle class: Romney 53%, Obama 38%
  • Struggling to remain in current class: Romney 55%, Obama 32%
  • Laid off/knows someone whose been laid off: Romney 56%, Obama 32%
  • Upper middle class/better off: Romney 61%, Obama 29%

This raises an interesting question: how could a majority believe that Obama would advance the interests of the middle class when members of the middle class (and working class, and upper middle class, etc) believe that their best bet is Romney?

Public opinion is interesting and frustrating. In one of the classes I teach (environmental policy) I provide students with some data that shows two things: (1) a majority believe the environment has gotten worse, and (2) a majority believe that the environment, as they experience it, has improved. Both can’t be true simultaneously. I use this example to explain that people tend to gain their impression of macro-conditions via the media, which focuses on sensational stories, even if the larger story stands at odds with their own experiences. As a result, a majority thinks the environment has improved for them but has become worse for everyone else–an impossibility, to be certain.

The media seems committed to a distinct meta-narrative:  Obama will promote the interests of the middle class whereas Romney will cater to the 1 percent. To some extent, it appears, voters have accepted this portrayal. Yet, in their own assessment of how the candidates would impact on the economic welfare of themselves and their families, they depart from the meta-narrative.

This is not good news for the Obama campaign, particularly if voters will decide in November  based on their projections of how a given candidate’s victory will impact on them and their families. This is the big lesson.



3 thoughts on “Public Opinion and the Economy: What are the Lessons?

  1. Obama would do more to improve the conditions of the middle class relative to the rich. If there is a zero sum scenario, Obama would take from the rich and give to the middle class.

    Romney would not do this, and allow the rich to keep their huge share of wealth and income.

    However, Romney’s policies would increase total output, and so the well being of the unemployed, middle class, affluent, what have you.

    In my view, there would be a deep connection. That is, Obamas efforts to redistribute from the rich to the middle class would, on net, be harmful to the middle class.

    However, we could imagine that this is not the view of the voters. For example, suppose they believe that Obama’s efforts to stop global warming will hurt their economic well being.

    They could even believe that efforts to redistribute from the rich to the middle class would be effective, (ignoring any impact on total income,) but that Obama’s environmentalism would hurt them more than the redistribution would help them.

    Also, for a really depressing perspective, suppose that Obama’s efforts to help the middle class at the expense of the rich result in the rich sabatoging the economy. (Is that anything other than an alternative framing of the supply side/trickle down argument?)

    Or, for really depressing scenarios, maybe they believe that Romney will get tough with China, and this will result in great prosperity for them (and even greater prosperity for the rich.)

  2. The other thing to take away about public opinion is that individual human preferences are not always transitive. If you ask someone how they rank A, B, and C; they might respond I prefer A to B and B to C. This would suggest they also prefer A to C. But if you ask them to rank A and C, they might turn around and say they prefer C to A. This appears to make no sense, but such is the nature of human preferences.

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