Perception versus reality in presidential elections

David Limbaugh

3/23/2004 12:00:00 AM - David Limbaugh

Two political commentators I greatly respect recently said the 2004 presidential election will largely be determined by the situation in Iraq and the state of the economy around election time, so all the campaigning between now and then may be meaningless. I disagree.

I think the election results will turn as much on perceptions as reality, and political campaigns are all about creating perceptions, so the campaigning will be highly relevant.

Don't get me wrong, there is not always a major disconnect between perception and reality. The electorate will often perceive things as they objectively exist. But there are also great opportunities for distortions, and these distortions can affect election results.

The example that comes readily to mind is Bill Clinton's repeated assertion that under the first president Bush we were experiencing "the worst economy in 50 years." Of course, common sense and experience made that claim absurd on its face, given the years of malaise under Jimmy Carter, for example.

But we don't just have to rely on our common sense here. Later, objective data indicated that during the very time Clinton was slandering the Bush economy, we were beginning a recovery. Yet Clinton, aided by the fawning partisan media, was able to obscure reality and convince voters we were in economic freefall and ride "the economy, stupid" into the Oval Office.

Democrats are also aware of the power of perception in the area of political labeling, where a reputation for liberalism can be hazardous to one's electoral health. Just look at how John Kerry ran from National Journal's depiction of him as the most liberal senator of 2003, seeking to blur the objective reality of his liberalism.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Democrats have fine-tuned their skills at manipulating perception in their "campaigning" against the war in Iraq. To diminish our remarkable military achievements they nit-picked about our troops getting ahead of our supply lines, the looting of museums, the Iraqis not receiving us enthusiastically enough, and the like.

But the major weapon Democrats used to discredit Bush's performance on Iraq, prior to their orgy over the WMD issue, was the misrepresentation that we had attacked Iraq "unilaterally." Though we didn't succeed in persuading every recalcitrant nation to join the coalition, we did have scores of nations participating, making the charge of "unilateralism" objectively untrue.

But Democrats used this phony allegation to taint the American public's perception both about our objectively multilateral coalition and our objectively impressive military victory. They also conveniently concealed the objective fact that Bush tried hard to persuade the French, Germans, et al. to join us.

Concerning terrorist unrest since we achieved regime change in Iraq, Democrats have worked overtime to create the perception that the casualties we've sustained have been the handiwork of Iraqis disenchanted with Saddam's ouster.

These are not disaffected Iraqi commoners longing for the return of Saddam but militant holdovers from his fallen regime, and local and international terrorists with a vested interest in undermining America and preventing democracy from gaining a foothold in a Muslim nation in the Middle East.

Democratic perception-weaving has continued unabated through the primary season with the latest example being counterterrorism official Richard Clarke's new book designed to soil the Bush administration's credibility in the War on Terror. Clarke reportedly claims that President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were just looking for an excuse to invade Iraq following September 11 with or without evidence tying Saddam to the attacks.

This fits nicely into the hysterical fantasy that neoconservative warmongers planned to use Iraq as their first experiment in empire building under the Bush era and that Bush was their compliant puppet. But it ignores the objective reality that Bush ordered that we first strike the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that he didn't attack Iraq for another year and a half, and then only after Saddam was given multiple "last" chances to comply with U.N. resolutions.

The Democrats will also play the perception game with the economy. It won't matter if we are experiencing 10 percent annualized growth in October and the misery index is below the radar screen. They'll say that the rich are enjoying a disproportionate share of the wealth, or we're excessively "outsourcing" jobs.

Those who think that the "realities" are guaranteed to determine the presidential election results are underestimating the ingenuity of political spinmeisters. Republicans are certainly not virgins at the art of political spin, but they're mere neophytes compared to Democrats. Between now and November the Bush campaign team will be put to the test.