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Here’s an example from RealClearPolitics:

But the optics bode well for a party whose chances of winning the White House depend on attracting many more Hispanic voters than it did four years ago.¹ [emphasis added]

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

It means appearances, or “how a political situation appears to the public”. Macmillan Dictionary has been following the development of this new metaphor. Their gloss of the word’s history claims that the first political use was during the US presidency of Jimmy Carter, but that it became popular more recently in the context of the Libyan conflict.¹

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2  
Well and concisely answered. –  marc cenedella Sep 4 '12 at 6:48

The OED’s definition 2c of the singular optic as a noun is ‘A particular way of interpreting or experiencing something; a viewpoint, a perspective.’ The earliest citation in this sense is dated 1958.

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Maybe the origin lies in an other language. The use you describe is widely used in the German language. There you speak of a "schiefe Optik" - an 'awry optics' if a political process is dubious with respect to legal or moral standards.

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interesting! There might have been a path from "shiefe Optik" => optics the way we use it now in English! :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Apr 20 '13 at 6:56

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