Interest groups and presidential approval.

Author:Cohen, Jeffrey E.
Position::Report
 
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Job approval ratings are important to presidents and scholars of the presidency for a number of reasons. First, presidents view approval as a source of bargaining leverage with Congress (Edwards 2009): Recent scholarship supports this contention (Cohen 2011). Approval, too, has been used to predict the president and his party's prospects in the upcoming elections (Holbrook 2010). Most important for this article are the representational implications of approval. Approval can be thought of as an interelection barometer of public support for the president and his policies. Given the importance of presidential approval, presidents spend a lot of time on activities geared at enhancing and/or preserving their standing with the public, and scholars have invested considerable energy into studying the sources of presidential approval.

For the most part, research has centered on the macro sources of presidential approval. Commonly, studies look at temporal movement in national approval, asking such questions as whether changes in economic indicators or major presidential addresses to the nation affect the level and trend in approval (Gronke and Newman 2003, 2009). Cohen (2008, 2010), however, argues that recent changes in the political system, notably the rise in party polarization and the new media, has undermined the effectiveness of a national "going public" strategy (Kernell 2006) for building presidential support. Presidents now supplement going national with a going narrow strategy, in which they target their party base, certain localities, and interest groups. There has been very little research on either the efficacy of the going narrow strategy or the importance of interest groups to presidential support. The lack of attention to interest groups for presidential approval is also somewhat odd given their importance in politics and to the presidency (Baumgartner and Leech 1998; Baumgarmer et al. 2011; Walker 1991).

Interest Groups and Presidential Approval

This article asks whether interest groups can affect their members' evaluation of the president. Recent research suggest the growing importance of interest group support to presidents, especially as the parties have polarized and the media have fragmented, two trends that limit the ability of presidents to generate support in the public at-large (Cohen 2008, 2010; Holmes 2008). Party polarization reduces the likelihood that opposition party members will support the president (Bond and Fleisher 2001; Jacobson 2007; Newman and Siegle 2010). A fragmented media reduces the size of the audience for presidential communications, simultaneously forcing the president to compete with other media voices for the public's attention (Baum and Kernell 1999; Young and Perkins 2005).

As a consequence, presidents have turned to other sources for support, like interest groups. The literature on presidential-interest groups ties, however, focuses primarily on institutional-level linkages, for instance, the willingness of interest groups as organizations to support the president, to coordinate their congressional lobbying efforts with the president's, etc. (Loomis 2009; Peterson 1992; Pika 1991, 1999, 2009). Although knowledge of the institutional linkages between presidents and interest groups is scant, even less is known about the factors associated with the ability of the president to generate support from members of interest groups, or even whether interest group membership is relevant to member opinions about the president.

Scholars believe that interest groups may influence opinions on issues: "Citizens' judgments about ... issues rely crucially on the descriptions and rhetorical representations of political elites and other information sources, including the media and interest groups" (Joslyn and Haider-Markel 2002, 690). Several studies suggest a linkage between group membership and approval of the president.

For instance, Mueller's (1970) "coalition of minorities" concept hints at a possible linkage between interest groups and presidential approval. The coalition of minorities concept is built upon spatial theory assumptions. Mueller argues that "the possibility that an administration, even if it always acts with majority support on each issue, can gradually alienate enough minorities to be defeated. This could occur when the minority on each issue feels so intensely about its loss that it is unable to be placated by administration support on other policies it favors." (1970, 64). Over the course of an administration, the number of presidential decisions that alienate some "minority" will mount, leading Mueller to hypothesize a linear decline in presidential approval. Although Mueller does not formally define minority, most equate the term with "issue publics" and/or "interest groups." Mueller's coalition of minorities concept, however, is vague about the specific conditions under which a presidential decision will translate into support withdraw among these intense minorities. Does this reaction happen on all issues or only some? Do formal interest groups play any role in this process, for instance, by publicizing a presidential decision to its members and either endorsing or criticizing the president's decision? (1)

Claibourn and Martin (2007) look at the impact of voluntary group membership on confidence in the executive, using a series of General Social Survey studies. Using a social capital framework, they find that presidential liberalism affects confidence in the executive for those who belong to voluntary groups but has no effect on those who do not belong to a voluntary group. However suggestive, Claibourn and Martin's study is limited for our purposes. Although confidence in the executive and presidential job approval are related, they are not the same, which they acknowledge (Claibourn and Martin 2007, 195). (2) Plus, their measure of group membership tallies the number of types of groups to which a person belongs, not a particular group, the objective of this article. Third, they do not distinguish among types of issues, looking at general presidential liberalism rather than presidential actions or positions on specific issues. Still, their results are suggestive of a group membership-approval linkage.

Below I develop and test a theory of interest group influence on member approval of the president. Interest groups affect member approval of the president by linking the issue important to the group to evaluations of the president. This linkage between issue and approval is conditional on issue type, specifically whether the issue is "easy" or "hard" (Carmines and Stimson 1980, 1989; Cobb and Kuklinski 1997; Joslyn and Haider-Markel 2002; Leege et al. 2002). Group effects on member approval will be greater for "hard" than "easy" issues. I test this with data from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which asked respondents about membership in 11 interest groups. Variance in the type of groups and issues provides an opportunity to test this conditional effects hypothesis. The next section presents the theory, followed by a discussion of the data, and then the analysis, which demonstrates support for the conditional interest group-issue effects theory. The conclusions put the findings into perspective, speak to the implications for presidential leadership, and suggest directions for future research.

A Theory of Interest Groups Influence on Presidential Approval

The theory linking interest group membership to presidential approval contains two elements: (1) special services that interest groups provide to its members and (2) characteristics of the issue around which the group is organized. Those special services, especially interest group media, provide the foundation for possible group effects on member opinion. The type of issue, easy versus hard, interacts with this group environment, linking the issue of importance to the group to the president. This linkage is likely to be stronger for harder as opposed to easier issues.

Information Flow within Interest Groups

First, consider the special services that interest groups may provide members. Of particular importance here are specialized media, such as newsletters, magazines, and online materials that members receive from the group. Two attributes of these specialized interest group media stand out. One, they often cover the issue of concern to the group and its members in greater breadth and depth than found in the general news media. Two, this coverage blatantly takes an advocacy posture, endorsing or criticizing the president's actions. The general news media, in contrast, may feel professional and other constraints to be more "objective" in their reporting. Objectivity in journalism usually requires presenting both sides of the issue. Thus, while the general news media may present voters with a two-direction information flow, interest group media will present voters with a one-direction information flow (Zaller 1992).

This information flow from interest groups to members may have both priming and framing effects. For instance, the deeper coverage of an issue in the specialized group media should raise the importance of the issue to the group member, in effect priming that issue. The blatant advocacy in these specialized media may aid members to interpret the president's position with regard to the issue, a framing effect. In the analysis below, we will not be able to distinguish between these two mechanisms. Thus, we should see the issue of concern to the group carrying greater weight in member approval of the president than for nonmembers, but for hard as opposed to easy issues, the second major element of the theory.

Issue Type and Interest Group Effects: Easier versus Harder

Type of issue will mediate the effect of group media on member's approval of the president. Carmines and Stimson's (1980) distinction between "easy" and "hard" issues provides a good starting place for understanding how...

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