Fighting Over What's Real: Why Food Stamp Association Could Be Critical

January 30, 2012, 5:55 PM GMT+0

Leading up to the 2010 election, Model Politics published several posts about the distorted view typical Americans have of those who live around them – overestimating the presence, by large amounts, of everything from illegal immigrants to the number of people making over $250,000. The greatest misperception, however, was in guesses about the proportion of food stamp recipients in a person’s state. On average, people were off by a factor of three (11.6% in reality at the time, 32.2% as the average response). Given people’s distorted view of food-stamp-reality, is Newt Gingrich’s recent effort to paint President Obama as "the greatest food stamp president in history" a sound campaign strategy? People already believe a third of their community is on food-stamps, so how much higher can that share get after two more years of Obama’s reign?

A few things are going on with Gingrich’s assertion. First, he is trying to tie Obama to welfare programs like food stamps, but second, he is trying to link Obama to policies that help Black Americans. Marty Gilens has shown definitively that food stamps are associated with African Americans in popular imagination. In fact, many welfare programs are tied to evaluations of racial minorities. Why does Gingirch want to do this? We could explain it, but it is better laid out in Michael Tesler’s recent post on this blog. Tesler provides authoritative evidence that racial prejudice is alive and well in the 2012 campaign. Given this, can the food-stamp prime increase people’s assessments of the number of people on support in their communities, and by default, raise considerations of racial prejudice to a critical level?

Notice the clever nature of Gingrich’s strategy: he doesn’t have to change people’s opinions about anything, he just has to link Obama to food stamps in order to remind them that Obama favors policies that help Blacks --- and, oh yeah, that Obama is Black. Racial prejudice will do the rest.

Last week, YouGov polled Americans again about the percentage of food stamp recipients in their state – the responses were very similar to the 2010 data: white respondents estimated that 33.5% of their state was on food stamps. White Republicans give a slightly higher answer than white Democrats, but the highest average answer was actually among independents at 35.2%. In general, however, the massive degree of misperception was present across partisan affiliations.

Because of Gingrich’s recent claim, we added a small experiment to the survey. Before asking about food stamps, we reminded half the respondents that Gingrich said “that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” The effect of this prime demonstrates the degree to which politicians can shape perceptions of reality. Predictably, Republicans responded to being reminded about Gingrich’s statement with a 3-point increase in their estimate of those around them on support (Tea Party supporters added a point for a 4-point shift). Democrat opinion didn’t move at all when reminded about what Gingrich said. The largest move, however, came from those who already supported Gingrich for the nomination. These respondents increased their guess about the number of people on food stamps by 7-points – a 25% increase in a number that is already inflated by 200%. But here’s the most important movement: nearly as large as the move by Gingrich supporters is the movement among independents and non-partisans who shifted their estimates by 6-points. In a political world where most opinion change comes from information that is consistent with people’s pre-existing filters, this 6-point move by independents is important.

Can candidates shape people’s perceptions of reality? Yes. What does this mean going in to 2012? Potentially quite a lot. Whether the nation’s economy grows or declines, the movements leading up to the election are likely to be small, which means both candidates will have incentives to try to re-shape people’s perceptions of the nation’s economy. This is exactly what happened in the summer and fall of 1992, when GDP growth from the fourth to the second quarter before the election was just under 2 percent and Bill Clinton claimed “the economy is in the dumper” while George Bush kept insisting “we are out of the recession.”

On top of the candidates’ attempts to shape economic reality, will surely be claims like Gingrich’s priming Obama’s race and increasing the importance of racial prejudice to vote choice. That Gingrich got independents to change their perceptions as much as those who already support his candidacy is not a good sign for the Obama re-election campaign. Economic reality will probably favor Obama’s re-election (it’s the change that matters not the level), but the levels of unemployment and other indicators may make Obama’s growth story hard to believe.

In what is sure to be a close contest, relatively small effects, like those that may come from linking Obama to food stamps, could be critical.