Does the Public Hold Governors Accountable for Policy Outcomes?

AuthorJennifer Wolak,Srinivas Parinandi
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 10511064
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211041044
Does the Public Hold Governors
Accountable for Policy Outcomes?
Jennifer Wolak
and Srinivas Parinandi
What are the origins of gubernatorial popularity? Past studies debate whether governors are substantively evaluated
based on their performance in off‌ice, with some arguing that the origins of approval may be idiosyncratic to particular
governors. These studies typically consider gubernatorial approval in a handful of states or patterns of approval in the
aggregate. We improve on this research by drawing on a richer data source: the Co operative Congressional Election
Study. We consider both individual-level and state-level explanations of gubernatorial popularity with a sample of over
300,000 respondents across the 50 states from 2006 to 2018. We explore how party, policy outcomes, and government
performance shape levels of gubernatorial approval. We show that people evaluat e governors based on the ideological
direction of policy outcomes in the states. When state policy outcomes align with their ideological preferences, people
report higher levels of approval for the job performance of their governor. We also conf‌irm the importance of party and
state economic performance for gubernatorial approval.
governors, approval, gubernatorial approval, policy outcomes, public opinion
For governors, their popularity with the electorate is a
valued resource. When seeking reelection, governors who
enjoy high levels of public support are better able to ward
off strong challengers and are more likely to secure the
support of voters in their state (Bardwell 2002;Kenney
and Rice 1983;King 2001;Svoboda 1995). Within state
government, public approval serves as an informal power
for governors (Beyle and Ferguson 2008). Popular gov-
ernors are perceived as more inf‌luential by state legislators
(Cohen 2018) and tend to achieve greater success at
implementing their policy goals (Kousser and Phillips
2012). Within state bureaucracies, greater gubernatorial
approval serves as useful informal power that grants
governors greater inf‌luence over bureaucrats (Dometrius
2002;Sigelman and Dometrius 1988). In the case of state
judiciaries, popular governors are more likely to see their
executive power upheld by state supreme court justices
(Johnson 2015).
Given the importance of gubernatorial approval in
politics, we are interested in better understanding its or-
igins. Somewhat surprisingly, prior studies of guberna-
torial approval have raised doubts about whether
governors are substantively evaluated based on their job
performance. Some fail to f‌ind much leverage over ex-
plaining the origins of gubernatorial approval, suggesting
that roots of popularity may be idiosyncratic to particular
governors (Adams and Squire 2001;Crew and Weiher
1996). Other studies disagree on whether even funda-
mentals like partisanship and economic performance in-
form gubernatorial approval (e.g., Cohen 1983;Larimer
2015;MacDonald and Sigelman 1999;Orth 2001). If
governors are not evaluated based on the outcomes or
performance of state government, then it raises concerns
about whether citizens are able to provide a meaningful
check on the elected off‌icials in their state. To the degree
to which gubernatorial popularity is used by state exec-
utives to achieve inf‌luence with state legislators and
bureaucrats, it might not be a resource that has been
sincerely earned by governors.
Using responses from the 2006 to 2018 Cooperative
Congressional Election Study, we explore both
Department of Political Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing,
Department of Political Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO,
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer Wolak, Department of Political Science, Michigan State
University, 318 South Kedzie Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.

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