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Floating All Boats, or Just Mine?

Jul 20 '11

In conjunction with Joshua Tucker’s post below, it seemed worth noting a quote tucked into David Leonhardt’s column in today’s NY Times.  In it, David Plouffe, President Obama’s political adviser, claims that “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers. People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate. They’re going to vote based on: ‘how do I feel about my own situation?…'”

The question Plouffe raises is not quite, as Leonhardt frames it, whether the economy matters to the president’s reelection. Rather it is how it matters. Do voters look at national numbers? – on the grounds that a rising tide floats all boats – or do they only look at their own water level? Plouffe, for good reason, wants the latter to hold true. The great intuitive political scientist Bill Clinton said something similar back in 1996: “Those big numbers don’t mean much to people; they really want to know how they are doing in their communities—‘how is it on my block?’”

This debate – which has been framed (by Kinder and Kiewiet in 1979, for instance) as “sociotropic” versus “pocketbook” voting – is hardly new to regular readers of this page (see, for example, here, and here.) The problem for Plouffe is that, as Steve Ansolabehere, Marc Meredith, and Erik Snowberg, note in the Monkey Cage post linked above:  “The literature on economic voting notes that voters’ subjective evaluations of the overall state of the economy are correlated with vote choice, whereas personal economic experiences are not.”

Note Ansolabeher et al’s stress on the word “subjective.”  How voters interpret the state of the national economy clearly matters. Still, Bill Clinton was probably right. Only he was right in 1992.