Who is responsible, the incumbent or the former president? Motivated reasoning in responsibility attributions.

Author:Nawara, Steven P.

The recovery from the 2008 recession consisted of four years of high unemployment and low economic growth in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Incumbents can generally interpret such negative economic conditions as dire warning signs of an impending electoral defeat. Political scientists since Kramer (1971) have demonstrated a clear link between economic performance and electoral outcomes, and almost every forecast of presidential elections includes objective economic indicators (Holbrook 2012). However, the sluggish economic recovery did not sink President Barack Obama's reelection hopes, and Mitt Romney failed to unseat him in November 2012. Obama won reelection in spite of exit poll results that showed overwhelming majorities of voters holding negative perceptions of economic conditions, not thinking they were better off than four years prior, and viewing the economy as the top issue in the election. To explain this seeming contradiction, many journalists and pundits seized upon a result in the same exit poll that showed many voters simply were not holding those evaluations against President Obama. Instead, a majority of voters did not think Obama was at fault for economic conditions, and they were more likely to place the blame on former President George W. Bush by a 20% margin (Cass 2012; Trumbull 2012). As Edwards and Gallup (1990, 138) note in their analysis of the economy's effect on presidential approval ratings, "Blame is not automatic for presiding over hard times."

This recent election highlights how important it is for political scientists to consider how individuals ascribe responsibility to politicians. These responsibility judgments have a profound effect on candidate evaluation and voting behavior (see Feldman 1982; Lau and Sears 1981; Lowry, Alt, and Ferree 1998; Peffley 1984; Sniderman and Brody 1977), and deserve greater attention in the literature. Since people often vote based on whether or not they see a politician responsible for national conditions, it is vital for political scientists to develop a deeper understanding of how citizens make responsibility attributions in various contexts. Importantly, a voter's responsibility attribution does not occur in a vacuum; this article argues that the decision of whether to hold a current officeholder responsible will depend on voters' perceptions of the issue, their partisan attachments, and the responsibility they assign to the former officeholder. Following a transition of power from one administration to the next, the political significance of responsibility attributions can be dramatic; whether voters ascribe responsibility for conditions to the current or former president can greatly affect the incumbent's job approval, the "political capital" held by the incumbent when implementing his agenda, and the willingness of voters to support or oppose his party in upcoming elections.

Research has shown that responsibility attributions are often driven by partisan motives (e.g., Atkeson, and Maestas 2012; Brown 2010; Maestas et al. 2008; Malhotra and Kuo 2010; Rudolph 2003b; Sirin and Villalobos 2011). This study builds upon that literature by examining how citizens determine responsibility across presidential administrations in light of the confusion caused by a presidential transition of power. This article extends the findings of these studies to show that the partisan biases that often accompany the attribution process are not limited to the assessment of current political leaders. Instead, consistent with theories of motivated reasoning, citizens credit and blame both current and former officeholders according to their partisan leanings in order to achieve harmony between their partisanship and their evaluations of issue conditions.

Following a review of the attribution and motivated reasoning literatures, I first establish the relevance of presidential transitions in the attribution process by showing that uncertainty exists regarding who is responsible for conditions early in a presidential administration. Unfortunately, existing data sources cannot speak to how citizens handle this ambiguity. To answer the question of how people assign responsibility across presidential administrations, I present original survey data that shows citizens often confront this uncertainty by assigning responsibility in accordance with their partisanship and issue evaluations. In essence, the data shows that it is quite common for average citizens to shift their perceived responsibility for negative conditions toward the president of the opposite party while viewing a co-partisan president responsible for positive conditions. The results presented here suggest that scholars need to understand how severely partisanship can bias citizens' issue evaluations and responsibility attributions. Furthermore, by broadening the scope of the analysis to include attributions for the economy and the Iraq War, this study joins Sirin and Villalobos (2011) as the only research, to my knowledge, that directly examines how individuals form responsibility attributions for a foreign affairs issue.

Determining Responsibility

For most issues confronting the nation, citizens can reasonably assign responsibility to a variety of leaders, institutions, and factors. Despite this, previous attribution studies have lacked a comprehensive examination of the responsibility shared by attribution targets. Instead, the vast majority of attribution studies have looked at the economic attribution process by couching the response options in general terms like "the President," "Congress," or "businesspeople" (e.g., Rudolph 2003b's analysis of the 1998 American National Election Studies [ANF.S]) or through the use of hypothetical situations in experiments (e.g., Sirin and Villalobos 2011). While such measurements are useful for looking at the role of institutions or evidencing causal relationships, they do not fully account for the political context in which the attribution process resides and may underestimate the role of partisanship when party labels and actual names are not provided (as is the case with the 1998 ANES). In rare cases, names are given, such as "President Reagan" rather than "the President" (e.g., Peffley and Williams 1985), which improves upon this issue, but still lacks a complete inclusion of the political context because it does not acknowledge history's role in the attribution process. Specifically, only including the current president as a response option fails to account for the possibility that individuals will blame or credit former elected officials for current conditions. Since there is regular turnover in American governments, and since national conditions often change slowly, studying the attribution process in this way provides an incomplete picture at best and an inaccurate one at worst.

Unfortunately, little work has seriously approached how individuals assign responsibility for national conditions after a governmental transition. Aside from studies that suggested Republican losses in the 1982 midterms were minimized because of the electorate's failure to blame Ronald Reagan for the recession (Peffley 1984; Peffley and Williams 1985; Petrocik and Steeper 1986), the role of previous officeholders in the assignment of credit and blame is not handled in the literature. Clearly, responsibility assignment after a transition of power is an area that is underexplored and ripe for further elaboration. This article uses two issues to highlight the problems of the standard incumbent-only approach: the national economy and the Iraq War. With both issues, it would be difficult to ascribe responsibility without being able to consider President Bush alongside President Obama. Yet despite this, it is surprising that previous work does not include former officeholders in the response option set when asking about attributions.

This study assesses how the public holds the former officeholder responsible for conditions in relation to the incumbent and vice versa. This is an important addition to the literature because governmental transitions of power are quite common in the United States, occurring at regular intervals due to electoral defeats, presidential term limits, and when other unfortunate situations cause one president to take over the term of another. When a new president takes over, he is not given a clean slate. Using the economy as an example, things like budgetary issues, government spending, trade agreements, and tax policies all carry over and affect conditions well after a president leaves office. Furthermore, we can easily apply the logic of presidential transitions to other instances in which one officeholder takes over after another (e.g., governors, mayors, and partisan shifts or leadership changes in Congress).

Instead of transitions, the closest examples of research examining how partisan biases motivate responsibility attributions deal with other situations where responsibility may be ambiguous, such as across institutions (Rudolph 2003b), in competing policy domains (Sirin and Villalobos 2011), in cases of "divided federalism" (Atkeson and Maestas 2012; Brown 2010), or in disaster response (Atkeson and Maestas 2012; Maestas et al. 2008; Malhotra and Kuo 2010). The results of these studies suggest that individuals tend to assign credit and blame in a partisan manner, which is consistent with earlier attribution work that claimed attributions to be rationalizations of previously held beliefs (Iyengar 1989) or the result of partisanship and previous voting behavior (Sigelman and Knight 1985).

The political science literature surrounding presidential approval ratings may provide additional context for this study. Like attributions, partisan predispositions often color approval ratings (Edwards and Gallup 1990). Attributions of responsibility and presidential approval attitudes may be closely related as well; if approval varies with...

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