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.