Mind the Gap

Politico looks at how Washington elites see the economy

Politico has the smart idea to compare how the American public sees the economy and what “Washington’s governing class” thinks. While the results aren’t exactly shocking, it’s good to have some data to hammer home just how big the differences are.

The win-the-morning hed tells the story:

Reality gap: U.S. struggles, D.C. booms

The piece does well with a snapshot of the D.C. economy. Government is growing in the metro area (check out the first part of The Washington Post’s Top Secret America series for some mind-boggling examples). The jobs and housing markets are healthy, and hotels, restaurants and retail stores aren’t under the distress they’ve faced in other places. And, “Since the recession began in December 2007, metropolitan Washington has shed about 71,000 employees on nonfarm payrolls, the fewest number among the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan areas.”

Life here is pretty good, and all that shapes how the capital class sees things:

As a result, there is a yawning gap between the American people and D.C.’s powerful when it comes to their economic reality — and their economic perceptions.

A new POLITICO poll, conducted by market research and consulting firm Penn Schoen Berland, underscores the big divide: Roughly 45 percent of “Washington elites” said the country and the economy are headed in the right direction, while roughly 25 percent of the general population said they felt that way.

We’ve written before about the importance of understanding the gap between elite and mass opinion. So it’s good to see Politico take on this project, the first in a series of six polls designed to compare national public opinion with that of Washington’s elite.

The story is also a bit of good timing for Politico, which features prominently in a front page story in The New York Times business section about the tough demands of online news. There’s also a photo of the site’s top editors, and a caption that’s pretty pointed:

The notion of Politico as journalistic sweatshop is pure myth, say John Harris, editor in chief, left, and Jim VandeHei, executive editor.


With its new poll, Politico provides a couple of stories, a report on all the findings and plenty of analysis. Nate Silver doesn’t like that Mark Penn conducted the poll, but I still think it gets at an important point, and the details are worth a look.

Their definition of elite is also worth noting: respondents live in the D.C. metro area, make more than $75,000 a year, have at least a college degree and are “involved in the political process or work on key political issues or policy decisions.” Polling purists might not like the 6.53% margin of error in that elite poll, but it’s still a start.

It’s worth pointing out that, while it doesn’t come with the same comparisons with the general public, I’ve always found National Journal’s Insiders Poll a good place to gauge Washington thinking.

As Politico notes, it’s at least good to see that its elite respondents appear to be aware of their relative good fortune, with 74 percent saying “they have felt the current economic downturn less than most Americans.”

But it’s a bit frustrating that, in trying to prove how insulated Washington is from most of the rest of the economy, Politico seems to push a little too hard on some data points.

Yes, it’s interesting that the unemployment rate in metro Washington hit 6 percent in May. As Politico says, that’s up from April, but still “well below the national average of 9.5 percent and far milder than the May rates of the shattered manufacturing towns of the Midwest, including Flint, Mich. (at 14.7 percent), Elkhart, Ind. (at 13.7 percent) and Rockford, Ill. (at 13.9 percent).”

OK. But no one ever claimed this is a manufacturing town. Is there anyplace else that Washington could be compared with?

There’s also this:

During 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 11,000 initial claimants for unemployment insurance associated with extended mass layoff events in the Flint metropolitan area and less than half that number for the D.C. metro area — a region that includes the District itself and the wealthy, highly educated counties of Northern Virginia and southwest Maryland. It’s a sobering reminder of the District’s distance from the epicenters of the Great Recession.
I love that epicenter line, even after last week’s Washington earthquake. (Really.)

But 11,000 claimants in Flint vs. less than half that in the D.C. area doesn’t tell me too much. Any context there, like the percent of those employed?

Despite those flaws, Politico did find a bit of interesting agreement between Washington’s elite and the rest of the land.

When asked to identify the most important issue facing the country, 52 percent of elites and 48 percent of respondents from the rest of the country identified the economy and jobs.
That’s encouraging—though “the economy and jobs” could mean different things to different people.

Well done to Politico for the good idea and the interesting poll, and the stark reminder that where you stand really does depend on where you sit.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.