Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.

A survey that’s being glossed as showing that voters are thinking subjunctively in fact shows that they’re voting sociotropically (voting based on what they see as the country’s economic condition, not their own).

A recent Heartland Monitor poll commissioned by the National Journal has gotten a lot of attention. Ezra Klein (in a take seconded by Ed Kilgore), calls it the “poll result that explains the election.” More important, though he for some reason doesn’t note the fact, Ezra’s reading would require upending one of the most important and respected laws of social science, namely Sabl’s Law: “No argument can succeed in American politics if it contains a subjunctive.” Needless to say, Ezra is wrong and the law is still infallible.

As Ezra has it,

Washington has been a bit perplexed by President Obama’s small but persistent lead in the polls. His administration would seem to fail the “Are you better off than you were four years ago” text. And presidents who fail that test lose, right?

But perhaps that’s the wrong question. We focus on the question “Are you better off than you were four years ago” because we assume voters aren’t sophisticated enough to vote based on the right question, which is “are you better off than you would have been if the other party’s candidate had won the presidency four years ago?”

The conventional wisdom: Voters don’t do counterfactuals. “It could have been worse” is a losing message. That’s been the Romney campaign’s theory of the case, certainly, and many in the media have bought it. But perhaps we’re not giving voters enough credit.

The new Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll tested this directly. First, they asked the standard “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” A plurality said they were not. Then they asked, “are you better off because Obama won in 2008″? A plurality said they were.

I’ll leave it for philosophers of language to decide whether “are you better off because Obama won in 2008” is truly equivalent to a counterfactual, and if so, to which counterfactual (better off than if McCain had won? Than if George W. Bush had been eligible for a third term and won one? Than if they’d called off the election?). In any case, it’s not literally a subjunctive, so Sabl’s law hasn’t been falsified. Assuming for argument that people are implicitly filling in something like “better off than if McCain had won and continued Republican policies,” there are still two problems.

First off: Ezra’s summary, and the graph that follows it, leave out the undecideds. Of those surveyed, 34 percent of those surveyed think they’re worse off than four years ago—but 31 percent think they’re better off. An identical 34 percent, a tie for the plurality, think their economic condition is “about the same.” A straight pocketbook vote would hardly be a landslide. And as the original National Journal article notes, it’s those who think they themselves are doing about the same as four years ago who give Obama disproportionate credit for leaving the country better off than an alternative.

Second, and more crucially: while the National Journal article doesn’t cite the exact poll question (I’ll link to the whole poll if it’s posted), it seems clear that it asked something like “is the country [or “the nation”] better off” because Obama won in 2008. Unless Ezra has access to information the rest of us lack, he simply misquotes the second question when he has it as asking “are you better off.”

In other words, the two poll questions aren’t capturing the difference between how people evaluate how they’re doing and how they evaluate how they could be doing. It’s capturing the difference between how people evaluate their own circumstances and how they evaluate the condition of the country as a whole. The poll finding is completely consistent with a longstanding and strong, though complicated and contested, political science finding, namely that people’s vote is more often “sociotropic,” based on how they think the economy as a whole is doing, than “pocketbook,” based just on how they see themselves as doing. (The complexity arises from how they decide how the economy’s doing: it depends on which indicators affect the sector they’re in, and they may also compare their own situation to what they rightly or wrongly perceive to be others’. For the Monkey Cage’s excellent rundowns of this debate see these by Joshua Tucker, Andrew Rudalevige, Andrew Gelman [citing Ansolabehere et al.] and Lee Sigelman [citing Killian et al.].)

At the Democratic Convention, I didn’t see a lot of speakers saying “the economy is lousy but would have been even worse under McCain.” (Republicans kept saying that the Democrats were blaming the lousy economy on others, but that’s a Republican talking point that begs the question: Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or Independents to think that the economy is in fact lousy.) That statement, flouting Sabl’s Law, wouldn’t have been effective. Instead, the Democratic argument is, and always has been, that the economy as a whole is doing better than Republicans realize, that in particular it’s better than it was four years ago, at the height of the Great Recession; and that Republican policies would make things worse than they are now. That’s the argument our side has to win. The subjunctive is, as it always has been, a loser. And the Obama campaign knows it.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

13 thoughts on “Sabl’s law is safe: the Obama vote is sociotropic, not subjunctive.”

      1. Hi both: an excellent joke, but I’m afraid a commenter on my original “Sabl’s Law” post (see link above) beat you to it. (My response was: “An we go down that road, well…”)

  1. “the economy is lousy but would have been even worse under McCain.”

    That’s conditional, not subjunctive.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean. The “would” makes it subjunctive, no? It’s short for “If John McCain had been elected, it would have been (and would now be) even worse.”

      1. Technically, no, in English the main clause of this sentence (“it would … worse”) is not in the subjunctive mood.

        There are a number of different so-called irrealis moods in various languages to express non-actual events. Not all languages do have all of them; some merge several of them together in a subjunctive mood, some keep the ones they have separate. English, in particular, does not have a conditional mood, nor does it use the subjunctive mood in its stead, but expresses what other languages would use a conditional or subjunctive mood for (say, Latin or German) via a grammatical construction using the modal verb “would”. (One could argue, of course, that this is a distinction without a difference; after all, we construct the future tense with a modal verb [will] also.)

        Note that in Latin for example, factuality and counter-factuality is primarily expressed through moods and is completely separate from the grammatical form of if-then constructs (and the subjunctive has a much broader range of applications in general). In German, the modal verbs are actually used to form the subjunctive (“Konjunktiv II”), which is why a literal translation of your sentence (“Wenn John McCain gewählt worden wäre, wäre es noch schlimmer gewesen (und würde es immer noch sein).”) would indeed use the subjunctive for both the main clause and the dependent clause. The resulting superficial similarity between the German “würde” and the English “would” does tend to trip up people who speak German and then start using “would” when trying to express the subjunctive mood in English.

        1. English doesn’t have a conditional mood, nor a conditional tense, but it has a conditional construction using “would”, as does German using “würde”. “Had McCain been elected” is subjunctive.

  2. Unless Ezra has access to information the rest of us lack, he simply misquotes the second question when he has it as asking “are you better off.”

    Cut him some slack. Ezra is very busy these days getting his hair done and teevee makeup put on correctly.

  3. We would know for sure were Obama to have used the subjunctive argument. As it is your reasoning is entirely counter-factual and, as a red blooded American, I disdain it.

  4. I don’t know if your law is correct or not (I lean more towards the sociotrope than away from the subjunctive) … but it is very funny.

    And if this recession did lead to that law being broken for the first time, I might not be sorry.

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