The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famously quoted as saying “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In the case of economic data, however, this may not be true. In the October 2018 edition of the Marketplace/Edison Research Economic Anxiety Index poll, we asked a sample of Americans how much they trusted data about the economy that is reported by the Federal Government. 60% said that they at least “somewhat” trust the data, up from 55% in October 2016. And the most extreme reaction, “Do not trust it at all,” declined from 25% to 14%.
However, if we dig a little deeper into this question, we find something remarkable. The October 2016 survey was, obviously, fielded right before the Presidential Election, in the waning days of Barack Obama’s administration. The competing worldviews in the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could not have been more different: while Clinton ran on a platform of continuing the policies of the Obama administration, Trump ran under the argument that America was not, as surveys frequently ask, “on the right track.”
At the time of the October 2016 survey, U.S. unemployment was at roughly 5%, a number which is certainly below average (i.e., more towards full employment) compared to historical trends (by comparison, five years prior to October 2016, the unemployment rate exceeded 9%). So, with the government reporting “good” news, those who were currently aligned with the administration were more likely to believe that news. However, economic prosperity is never evenly distributed, a fact that then-Candidate Trump used to his advantage when he campaigned in pockets of America that had seen significant declines in manufacturing and well-paying jobs. If you lived in Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan, your local economy was not doing well, regardless of what the national statistics said.
As a result, there was a sharp disparity between how Clinton supporters felt about government statistics, and how Trump supporters felt, as we reported back in 2016. Then, the 55% trust/45% distrust by the total sample masked a significant partisan divide. While 86% of Clinton supporters trusted government economic statistics, only 31% of Trump supporters felt the same—indeed, 48% of Trump supporters indicated that they didn’t trust these stats at all, compared to 5% of Clinton supporters. With Republicans and Democrats overall, these differences were still highly significant: 78% of Democrats trusted government economic data, compared to 38% of Republicans.
How you interpreted this disparity likely depended on where you personally identified yourself politically. If you were a Democrat, you likely would have been inclined to cite Senator Moynihan’s quote, above. But if you were a Republican, you would likely have made the argument that the facts on the ground are different; that, despite what the national statistics say, there are significant pockets of America that are economically only getting worse. Both sides, in other words, were demanding to be entitled to their own facts.
This year we had a remarkable opportunity to revisit this phenomenon, once again just prior to a significant election, only now under a Republican administration. As noted above, the degree of trust in government statistics did tick up by five percentage points, and it should also be noted that unemployment today is even lower (currently 3.7%) than it was two years ago. While the percentage of those who trust government economic data did rise modestly from 55% to 60%, that rise once again masks a significant partisan divide.
The October 2018 data show that the “trusters” have completely flipped positions from 2016. Today, 73% of Republicans trust government data (compared to 38% in 2016) and 51% of Democrats trust these data (compared to 78% in 2016.) This is truly a remarkable shift in just a two-year period. The percentage of Republicans who “do not trust [government economic data] at all” declined from 37% to 7%. And the “somewhat distrust” figures for Democrats rose from 12% to 32%, nearly tripling in two years.
The opportunity to revisit this question under a new administration has given us a profound insight into how Americans from either side of the aisle perceive government communications. While one might have been tempted in 2016 to proclaim that Republicans were willfully ignoring “good” economic news, the truth is that both sides are inclined to believe “facts” when they are presented by their party, and less likely when they are presented by the opposition party. Yet, the underlying data is the same: unemployment statistics tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just as they have been since 1948.
All of which brings us back to Senator Moynihan. Perhaps we are all entitled to our own facts, after all.