How presidents shape their party's reputation and prospects: new evidence.

Author:Jacobson, Gary C.

This article reports research undertaken as part of a larger project examining how postwar U.S. presidents have affected their party's popular standing and reputation over both the short and long run. The guiding idea behind the project was spelled out in an earlier publication in this journal:

The president is his party's dominant public face. His words and actions articulate and define his party's current principles and objectives. Judgments about his competence in managing domestic and foreign affairs inform assessments of his party's competence in such matters. The components of a president's supporting coalition, and the interests he favors while governing, help to define the party's constituent social base and thus appeal as an object of individual identification. People's affective reactions to the president, whatever their source, inevitably color their feelings about the other politicians in his coalition. Every president thus shapes public attitudes toward his party as well as beliefs about who and what it stands for and how well it governs when in office; insofar as the party label represents a brand name, the president bears prime responsibility for the brand's current image and status. (Jacobson 2012, 684)

Presidents do not assume office with a blank partisan canvas, of course. Existing partisan biases and party images shape reactions to future presidents as soon as they arrive on the national stage (1) and continue to have a potent effect on evaluations of their performance throughout their time in office (Jacobson 2011, 5-6). For each administration, however, these initial reactions can be considered a starting point, a product of the existing configurations of public attitudes toward and beliefs about parties that are subsequently updated and revised in response to developments during the president's years of service.

Analyses published so far have provided abundant evidence of the president's pervasive influence on his party's standing, reputation, and electoral fortunes. Popular ratings of the president's party (positive or favorable evaluations) vary directly with presidential job approval and favorability ratings (summary evidence is in Table 1). Affective reactions to the president's party reflect affective reactions to the president (as measured by the American National Election Studies [ANES] feeling thermometers and for every president since the question has been asked, beginning with Richard Nixon). Perceptions of the president's ideology shape perceptions of his party's ideology (as measured by assigned location on the ANES 7-point liberal-conservative scale, Nixon through Barack Obama). Presidential approval has had a powerful effect on judgments of relative party competence in dealing with the nation's most important problem in every administration from Harry Truman's through Obama's. Both individual and aggregate partisanship move in response to changes in individual and collective evaluations of the president's performance. And of course the president's party's electoral fortunes rise or fall with his public standing during the election season (Jacobson 2009, 2012, 2013).

In this article, I review the evidence regarding some additional ways in which presidents might influence their party's reputation and image. I examine how presidents affect Americans' views of the congressional parties and their leaders; how evaluations of the president's performance in particular domains (managing the economy and foreign policy, combating terrorism) affect his party's reputation for managing these domains; how presidents shape perceptions of their parties' concern for ordinary people; and how presidents affect their party's electoral support in generic straw polls taken between elections. I also take a further look at how presidents shape their party's standing over the long term by influencing the initial partisan attachments of young voters who enter the electorate during their administrations. The results leave no doubt that presidents have a pervasive effect on popular opinions of and beliefs about their parties both immediately and over the long run.

The Data

For the analyses presented here, I use data from hundreds of surveys taken by more than 20 polling organizations, most of them acquired from the Roper Center archive, (2) but others from and from the survey sponsor's web sites. (3) The availability and completeness of data series vary widely across administrations and questions. House effects are clearly evident, so I use survey sponsor fixed effects when estimating relationships using data from multiple polling sources.

These surveys offer three basic ways to view the relationships between opinions of presidents and parties: comparing trends over time, plotting or regressing opinions of the parties against opinions of the president, and performing cross-sectional analyses of individual surveys. In previous work I have used all three (Jacobson 2009, 2011, 2012).

For this article, I focus mainly, but not exclusively, on the second approach, because most of the data series examined here are too irregular to permit standard time- series analyses. Where data are available for secondary analysis, I estimate the pertinent relationships for partisan subgroups; for these analyses, the "independent" category necessarily includes independents who may lean toward a party because many of the surveys do not probe the partisan leanings of independents.

As illustration and as a baseline for comparison of later results, Table 1 reports updated versions of previously published estimates of the effects of opinions of presidents on general opinions of their party and of the rival party (Jacobson 2012; the results for Obama include two additional years of data). For the president's party, the relationship is strong and in the expected direction, in most cases with the coefficient quite precisely estimated. For both questions, the slope is largest for Obama, although not by a statistically significant margin. On average, a 10-point change in popular assessments of the president is associated with a 4.6-point change in popular assessments of his party. Regarding the rival party, the results are mixed. Ratings of Bill Clinton are negatively related to ratings of the Republican Party, with an estimated effect equal in size to the positive effect on the Democratic Party. Ratings of George W. Bush and Obama, in contrast, were unrelated to opinions of their partisan opponents. As I discussed in greater detail in an earlier article, the results from the Clinton administration most likely reflect reactions to the Republican's attempt to impeach and remove him from office. I also found that the estimates for Bush differed by term; only in his second term, as Bush's approval ratings fell in response to the increasingly unpopular Iraq War and late-term economic troubles, did his decline produce more favorable opinions of the Democrats (Jacobson 2012). This is a common pattern; presidents consistently affect their own party's standing with the public, but their effect on the rival party's standing varies widely depending on the circumstances that are driving popular assessments of the president. This is the case when we examine the presidential effects on attitudes toward the congressional parties.

Presidential Approval and Opinion of the Congressional Parties

Congress shares governing responsibilities with the president and therefore shares the public praise or blame for the state of the nation. Approval of Congress as an institution is driven largely by the same national conditions that drive presidential approval (Durr, Gilmour, and Wolbrecht 1997; Ramirez 2009); the two measures are highly correlated regardless of whether the president and Congress are controlled by the same party, although Congress is almost invariably viewed less favorably than the president. (4) Partisans tend to diverge much less in their evaluations of Congress in general than in their evaluations of the president; in contrast, opinions of the congressional parties and their leaders are highly partisan as well as being strongly associated with opinions of the president's performance. The questions probing evaluations of the congressional parties vary. In examining these data, I found that results did not differ depending on whether respondents were asked what they thought of the congressional party or more specifically its leaders; it also made no difference if respondents were asked if they approved of or had a favorable opinion of the congressional parties or leaders, so I have combined data from surveys using any of these combinations of questions for analysis here. However, I did analyze the Harris Poll data separately because these polls evaluate presidential and congressional party performance rather differently, asking respondents to rate their performance as "excellent, pretty good, only fair, or poor."

The basic relationships are displayed in Figures 1, 2a-c and 3; regression estimates of their slopes appear in Tables 2a and 2b. In the three administrations for which the requisite data exist, aggregate opinions of the congressional parties or their leaders expressed by all respondents are predicted very accurately by aggregate evaluations of the president. The slopes are significantly steeper for Obama and Clinton than for Bush in both data sets. The relationship holds for partisan subcategories as well for the entire population.

An interesting finding here is that the estimated slope for the president's partisans in the Bush and Obama administrations is about twice the size of the estimated slope for the other party's identifiers. It would be tempting to conclude from this that the president's partisans evaluate him and his congressional party by identical criteria (though beginning a lower base level for the congressional party, as indicated by the intercepts), while rival partisans (constrained...

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