The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans think we’re in a recession. They’re wrong. But still…

President Obama gives a speech about the economy at Paramount Theatre in Austin on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner)

We here at The Fix love polls -- love, love, love them. We write about them frequently because they are the best way to quantitatively examine the American electorate. On-the-ground reporting is vital, but polling, more than anything, allows us a 30,000-foot view.

Unfortunately, though, polling has its limits. And few things demonstrate this more than the recession question.

The recession question, as you might or might not presume, is asking people whether or not the United States is currently in a recession. It is not, but a very strong majority of people regularly say that it is -- and it's been that way for years.

Case in point: A new Public Religion Research Institute poll, which shows a whopping 72 percent of people think we are still in an economic recession.

Again, this is flat-out wrong. We are not in a recession. A recession is technically defined as two straight quarters of a declining Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Over the last four years, we have had only two total quarters of a declining GDP. And the last one was not negative, so even if the next one was, we would not be in a recession.

(OK, hypothetically, we could be in a recession if the current quarter and the next one after it both show negative GDP. But that is highly unlikely, if not nearly impossible. And people aren't really predicting that.)

And this is hardly the only poll to show the vast majority of Americans getting the wrong answer; basically every poll that asks this question -- and lots do -- shows an overwhelming "yes."

So taking us back to the issue at hand: polling. Does it matter that the American people are wrong on this question? Well, kind of. It shows that many/most Americans, when they answer pollsters' questions, aren't exactly basing that response on a whole lot of information.

But as we've argued before, these low-information Americans are also low-information voters, and these low-information voters still decide who is elected to Congress ... and president.

And in that light, the recession question is an important one. While Americans might not technically be correct about there being a recession right now, it's just their way of registering their continued uncertainty about the slow economic recovery. People don't know what "recession" means, but they do know what "sluggish economy" means, and they are conflating the two in a way that politicians must recognize. In other words, we would suggest candidates in the 2014 election refrain from needlessly pumping up the economy -- which they aren't.

Thus, Americans' views on the "recession" are important, even if it's not really a recession.