Presidential appointments and public trust.

Author:Hollibaugh, Gary E., Jr.


In recent years, presidential elections in the United States have been followed by near-rampant media speculation over which influential donors, advisors, partisans, and other individuals from the campaign the president-elect will appoint to sought-after positions. (1) After these names surface, discussion quickly turns to whether these individuals are receiving these plum positions due to their skills, or by dint of their contributions--financial or otherwise--to the president-elect's campaign efforts. (2) This is often followed by accusations that the president-elect is failing to change Washington and is doing nothing more than perpetuating the politics of patronage. (3) However, while there exists considerable research on the causes of patronage appointments (e.g., Bearfield 2009; Fish 1902; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Kaufman 1956; Lewis 2007; Lewis 2008; Lewis 2009; Lewis and Waterman 2013; Mackenzie 1981; van Riper 1958; Wilson 1887) and their effects on governmental performance (Gallo and Lewis 2012; Hollibaugh 2015a; Lewis 2009), the effects of patronage appointments on Americans' trust in government has gone relatively unstudied, despite media commentary asserting their detrimental effect. (4,5)

The focus on how patronage appointments affect trust in government is understandable, as perceptions of governmental corruption and patronage/favoritism have been linked to lower levels of public trust (e.g., Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn 2000; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995; Kelleher and Wolak 2007), and lower trust in government has been associated with decreased support for broad governmental agendas (e.g., Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn 2000; Chatagnier 2012; Hetherington 2005; Hetherington and Globetti 2002; Rudolph and Evans 2005). However, it is unclear whether the rather common practice of making patronage appointments rises to a level such that the public would perceive corruption or patronage/favoritism--as opposed to the normal functioning of the political process--at work. Moreover, not all nominees can be considered patronage appointees, and even those that are often have large amounts of relevant expertise or experience; indeed, if patronage appointees can negatively affect trust in the government, it seems reasonable to suggest that exceptionally competent appointees would have the opposite effect, and exceptionally ideological or partisan nominees would have asymmetric effects, with increased trust among partisans and decreased trust among members of the opposing party. However, to date, these possibilities have gone unstudied in the literature.

More generally, little research has examined how executive nominations and appointments affect public opinion; this is despite them either being directly responsible for policy implementation or overseeing those who are, as well as public interest in nominations in general (e.g., Manzano and Ura 2013). (6) Therefore, this study presents the first systematic examination of how executive nominees affect public opinion, with a focus on public trust. (7) Using a survey experiment with an embedded treatment, we offer an explanation of how different types of nominees affect trust in government. (8) Foremost, we find that nominating those who contributed financially to the president's campaign leads to decreases in trust in government. Moreover, we find that nominating those with perceived or demonstrated subject-level expertise leads to higher levels of trust in both government generally and the nominees in particular. Intriguingly, we find that nominating those who are ideologically aligned or otherwise loyal to the administration has no consistent effect on public trust in government.

Trust and Political Appointees

It is well established that, in the aggregate, the public's trust in government has declined precipitously since the 1960s (e.g., Citrin and Green 1986; Keele 2007; Miller 1974; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993) and is currently near a historic low. (9) As a result of the decline in trust, the public has been more reluctant to support broad governmental agendas, which has had the effect of decreasing political support for liberal policy goals in particular (e.g., Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn 2000; Hetherington 2005; Hetherington and Globetti 2002; Rudolph and Evans 2005) and the prospects for the success of political leaders in general (Hetherington 1998). (10)

The foundations of trust themselves stem from many different origins. For example, much of the previous research on this topic has linked trust with governmental performance, most specifically the state of the national economy (e.g., Citrin and Green 1986; Hetherington 1998; Hetherington and Husser 2012; Keele 2007; Weatherford 1984), though this effect is moderated by the salience thereof (Hetherington and Rudolph 2008). (11) However, other factors influencing public trust include crime (e.g., Chanley 2002; Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn 2000; Mansbridge 1997), partisanship (Keele 2005), scandals, and corruption--or at least the perception thereof (e.g., Chanley, Rudolph, and Rahn 2000; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995; Kelleher and Wolak 2007).

How, then, might political nominees and appointees themselves affect public trust? Recent work on the politics of presidential appointments has focused on three broad criteria on which presidents decide who will serve in their administrations--responsiveness, competence, and patronage benefits (e.g., Bearfield 2009; Gallo and Lewis 2012; Heclo 1975; Hollibaugh 2015a; Hollibaugh 2015b; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Lewis 2007; Lewis 2008; Lewis 2009; Moe 1985; Parsneau 2013). Responsiveness, alternatively characterized as loyalty or ideological fidelity, captures the extent to which appointees are politically, philosophically, ideologically, or personally in sync with the president's needs and goals. Competence, alternatively characterized as expertise, often refers to policy-specific expertise, but can also refer to organizational or managerial expertise, or even political expertise. Finally, patronage benefits can simply be considered as a catch-all category that characterizes the extent to which appointees provide nonpolicy goals to the president or the president's party--for example, by nominating a fundraiser to a plum post, presidents can send signals to other potential fundraisers that raising money for the president or the president's party may lead to an appointment to a high-profile position. In short, these positions (as well as other forms of patronage) are distributed with the goal of furthering personal and party goals, be they organizational, electoral, or personal (e.g., Folke, Hirano, and Snyder 2011; Gump 1971; Hollibaugh 2015a; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Johnston 1979; Lewis 2008; Lewis 2009; Pollock 1937; Souraf 1959; Wilson 1961).

From these criteria, as well as the causes of governmental trust, we can consider how individual nominees and appointees in particular may affect public trust. For starters, given that governmental performance is arguably the most important criteria driving trust--though see Hetherington and Rudolph (2008) and Hetherington and Husser (2012)--and that competence in the most general sense is one of the main criteria for selecting nominees, we should expect that, to the extent that the perception of nominees affects public trust, observing nominees with perceived competence should lead to higher levels of public trust. From this expectation, Hypothesis 1 is derived:

H1 (Competence): Nominating those with perceived competence should lead to higher levels of trust in government.

Next, consider that the perception of corruption is another important driver of public trust in government. As campaign finance restrictions (Alt and Lassen 2003) reduce perceptions of corruption, whereas appearances of favoritism and/or patronage tend to increase perceptions of the same (Redlawsk and McCann 2005), we should expect that those individuals who raised or otherwise contributed large amounts of money toward the president's campaign (or other members of his party) and were nominated and/or appointed to plum positions afterwards should be perceived by the public as potentially more corrupt--and thus untrustworthy--with similar judgments falling upon the nominating/appointing administration. (12) Thus, we should expect that the appearance of a quid pro quo--or the nomination of an individual who contributed financially to the campaign--should negatively affect trust in government:

H2 (Favoritism and Patronage): Nominating fundraisers or others for seemingly financial reasons should lead to lower levels of trust in government.

Finally, because trust is in part dependent on partisanship (Keele 2005) and that responsiveness is a key component of nominee/appointee selection, we have reason to expect asymmetric effects on trust when nominees are perceived to be partisans or ideologues. Members of the president's party should respond more positively than members of the opposing party, with trust increasing within the former group and decreasing within the latter:13

H3 (Partisan and Ideological Effects): Nominating partisans and ideologues should lead to asymmetric responses; trust in government should increase among copartisans and decrease among members of the opposing party.

Experimental Design

We fielded our experiment with subjects gathered from's Mechanical Turk marketplace (MTurk). From September 6, 2014, to September 11, 2014, we recruited 2,967 participants from MTurk to take the Qualtrics-hosted Survey on Presidential Appointments, each of whom was paid $0.90 USD. The experiment proceeded in four stages. In the first stage, which took place after some initial demographic questions, respondents were asked several questions regarding their opinions of the federal government. In particular, they were asked--in random order--how much they trust the government in Washington to do...

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