The Macro-dynamics of Partisan Advantage

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 450 –459
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918793231
Recent history demonstrates how dramatically parties’
reputations change alongside their legislative and elec-
toral fortunes. In 2006, the public seemed to have lost
complete faith in the Republican Party’s ability to govern.
Survey after survey showed that the public believed the
Democratic Party could do a better job handling almost
every major political issue: the war in Iraq, the economy,
taxes, federal spending, ethics, immigration, Social
Security, health care, and even gas prices. The Democratic
Party’s reputational advantage contributed to substantial
electoral gains in the midterm elections, resulting in the
Democrats retaking control of Congress. But just four
years later—even after capturing the presidency and
gaining additional seats in 2008—highly divisive legisla-
tive accomplishments gave way to a reversal of fortune.
This time, Democrats suffered heavy losses, and
Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives in
the 2010 midterms. By February 2013, the tides turned
again: the Republican Party now found itself unpopular
with the public and struggling to dictate the agenda of a
chamber it controlled, with the Republican majority in
the House finding itself on the losing side of high-profile
votes on changes in the tax code, hurricane relief, and the
Violence Against Women Act.
We might expect legislative success and party reputa-
tions to be tied to one another, but there is a surprising
lack of empirical support for the relationship between the
two concepts. Few studies have examined the link
between legislative performance and the parties’ fortunes
(e.g., Koger and Lebo 2017), despite the important link-
age between parties’ brand names and their ability to
carry out their legislative agenda in prominent theories of
political parties (e.g., Cox and McCubbins 1993, 2005).
In this paper, we fill this void by exploring a key element
of the two parties’ reputations—their perceived handling
of public policy—and examine the extent to which
Congress influences the public’s view of it.
Relying on a dataset of quarterly evaluations of the
two parties’ perceived handling of issues from 1980 to
2016, our analysis shows that policy reputations are not
reliably tied to congressional evaluations. In addition, we
find no evidence to support the assumption that a party’s
lack of success at controlling the agenda in the House has
negative repercussions for its reputation. Instead, the
public looks predominantly to the president to form judg-
ments about the relative standing of the two parties. The
results raise important questions about how to square the
weak relationship between party reputations and congres-
sional evaluations with its presumed theoretical role in
motivating the value of House agenda control (Cox and
McCubbins 1993, 2005) and with recent evidence that
congressional approval is related to party evaluations at
the individual level (Jones 2015). In addition, the results
provide further evidence of the executive as a focal point
for citizens’ evaluation of political parties.
793231PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918793231Political Research QuarterlyDancey et al.
1Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, USA
2University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jonathan Woon, Department of Political Science, University of
Pittsburgh, 4600 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA.
The Macro-dynamics of
Partisan Advantage
Logan Dancey1, Matthew Tarpey2, and Jonathan Woon2
How do party reputations change over time? We construct a measure of the common movement in the parties’
perceived policy handling abilities for the period 1980 to 2016 and investigate its relationship with the public’s
evaluation of Congress and the president. In contrast to key claims made in theories of congressional parties, we
find an inconsistent relationship between evaluations of Congress and party reputations and find no evidence that
successful agenda control enhances the majority party’s reputation. Instead, our analysis shows a strong relationship
between party reputations and presidential approval, reaffirming the central role the president plays in shaping
party reputations.
political parties, public opinion, party reputations, agenda control, aggregate opinion, time series

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