In rapid succession the 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections reaffirmed the common belief that a president's standing with the public has a powerful impact on the electoral fortunes of his party's candidates. (1) The connection between the president's job approval ratings and aggregate election outcomes has been thoroughly researched and appears firmly established, but the processes forging the connection have received comparatively little attention and remain somewhat obscure. The guiding premise of the research reported here is that the president influences election results in substantial part by shaping popular attitudes toward and beliefs about his party and by altering its appeal as an object of personal identification.
In a previous article that focused largely though not exclusively on the G. W. Bush administration (Jacobson 2009a), I documented several ways in which presidents affect their party's popular image and support. This article broadens the analysis by adding observations from the Obama administration as well as an expanded set of data from the Clinton and Bush administrations. I also perform additional tests of the president's influence on affective and cognitive reactions to his party using American National Election Studies (ANES) data, and I examine data covering the last 11 administrations to gauge the president's influence on perceptions of his party's competence in handling national problems. I find that presidents strongly affect how their parties are evaluated, perceived, and adopted as objects of identification, which, in turn, helps to account for the president's influence on the electoral fates of his party's candidates. I also find that opinions of Barack Obama have, so far, had an even larger effect on attitudes toward his party than did opinions of his predecessors, including G. W. Bush, with consequences that speak to an important controversy in the literature on mass partisanship.
Why Presidents Matter to Parties
Intuitive reasons for expecting a president to influence the public standing of his party come easily to mind. 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.
These observations suggest several testable hypotheses:
1. Evaluations of the president's party's will reflect his standing with the public; popular ratings of the president's party will vary with popular ratings of the president's job performance.
2. Affective reactions to the president's party will vary with affective reactions to the president.
3. Perceptions of the president's ideology will shape perceptions of his party's ideology.
4. Evaluations of the president's job performance will influence judgments about his party's capacity to handle national problems.
5. Aggregate partisanship (or macropartisanship)--the proportion of Republicans or Democrats in the electorate--will vary with the popular success or failure of the president.
6. Individual assessments of the president's job performance will affect individual partisan identities.
This sixth hypothesis was strongly supported by analysis of changes between elections in presidential approval and party identification in ANES panel studies covering the Gerald Ford, G. H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and G.W. Bush administrations (Jacobson 2009a, 207-09). As yet no comparable panel study is available for the Obama administration, so this hypothesis is not tested further here. The focus, then, is on the first five.
The president's party is not evaluated in isolation from its rival, but it is not obvious, a priori, if or how evaluations of the president should affect attitudes toward the opposition party. It is certainly conceivable that opinions of the president would influence opinions of his opponents under conditions of partisan conflict: the better (worse) people think of a president, the worse (better) they might think of the party opposing him. But the contrary is also conceivable, with people viewing both parties positively when times are good or during rally events such as the one provoked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and negatively when they are disdainful of the government's performance, as were most Americans after observing the debt ceiling showdown in the summer of 2011. The effects of a presidency on opinions of the opposition, then, should depend on the particular circumstances shaping opinions of the president.
Changes in mass and individual partisanship are, as usually measured, zero sum, so mass identification with rival party will be affected (in the opposite direction) as much by the president's standing as is mass identification with the president's party. But it is also conceivable that the president's effects on mass partisanship are asymmetrical; he may, for example, alienate some of his own partisans but without thereby rendering the other party more attractive. I explore this possibility in the section on macropartisanship.
Testing Hypothesis 1: Opinions of Presidents and Parties
To test the first hypothesis, that the president's standing with the public shapes his party's standing with the public, I created two data sets. One was assembled from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, which regularly ask respondents to evaluate various leaders and institutions, including the president and the two major parties, as very positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative, and very negative. For analytical purposes, I use as variables the proportion of respondents with very or somewhat positive views of the president and of the parties; the results are not sensitive to this choice. (2) The second data set was assembled from a variety of surveys that asked both the standard presidential approval question and a question about whether the respondent had a favorable or unfavorable view of each parry. (3) The analysis focuses on the proportion approving of the president's job performance and the proportion with a favorable view of each party.
Detailed graphic perspectives on the relationship between opinions of the president and his party for the Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Obama administrations appear in the Appendix (Figures Ala through A3f). The figures depict the across-time and cross-sectional relationships between the aggregate measures of presidential and party evaluations in the two data sets. For the across-time figures using the second data set, I use lowess smoothing to summarize the trends from the rather noisy data (a product of the diverse survey sources). A third pair of figures displays the cross-sectional relationships broken down by the respondent's party identification for each administration. (4)
Tables 1 and 2 report the OLS regression estimates of the cross-sectional relationships between aggregate evaluations of presidents and their parties depicted in the figures. In every case we observe the expected positive relationship, in most cases with the slope quite precisely estimated (p < .001). On average for all respondents, a 10-point difference in positive opinions of the president predicts a 4.7-point difference in positive opinions of his party; a 10-point difference in presidential approval predicts a 4.4-point difference in party favorability. The relationships are not identical across administrations, however; the coefficients for the Obama administration are larger than those for the Clinton and Bush administrations, although the difference is statistically significant (at p < .05) only in the "approve/favorable" data set. (5)
Of course, partisanship powerfully influences evaluations of the parties as well as of presidents, but we also observe clear linear relationships between opinions of presidents and their parties within partisan categories (both phenomena are readily apparent in the "e" and "f" figures for each administration in the Appendix). Although the regression results suggest some variation in these relationships among party identifiers (for example, Democrats display largest coefficients during the Obama administration), the overall pattern indicates that partisans of all persuasions adjust their opinions of the president's party as they adjust their opinions of the president in roughly the same way.
At the aggregate level, then, public evaluations of presidents and their parties varied together in all three administrations. The individual-level connection between opinions on presidents and parties was also very tight. For example, about 90% of respondents who had positive or negative views of the president and his party expressed consistent opinions, viewing both positively or both negatively (Table 3). Similarly, individual-level consistency in presidential approval (disapproval) and a favorable (unfavorable) opinion of the president's party was high, averaging 82% among respondents with an opinion of both (Table 4). Even independents, who tend to hold parties in rather lower regard than presidents, were consistent in their opinions 86% of the time on the first set of questions, 76%, in the second set.
Not surprisingly, consistency among partisans diverges at the extremes: It is highest among the president's partisans when the president is most popular and among opposition partisans when the president is least popular; and it is lowest among the president's partisans when the president is least popular and among opposition partisans when the president is most popular. Thus, there are limits to both the positive and negative effects of presidents on the popular status of their parties.
Public assessments of the president's party vary positively with assessments of the president. What of the opposition party? OLS estimates comparable to those reported for all respondents in Tables 1 and 2, but with opinions of the opposition party as dependent variables, suggest that the relationship varies with the conditions affecting opinions of the president (Tables 5 and 6). During the Clinton administration, opinions of the Republican Party varied negatively with opinions of Clinton in both data sets, with coefficients of equal magnitude (though with opposite signs) to those for the Democratic Party. A further parsing of the data suggests that the Republicans' attempt to impeach Clinton for lying about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky drove the relationship between presidential approval and party favorability. Clinton received his highest approval ratings, and the Republican Party its lowest ratings, in late 1998 and early 1999, just as Republicans were trying to impeach him, and it was only from that period onward that we observe a strong negative relationship between approval of Clinton and favorable opinions of the Republican Party (Table 6). For good reason (a booming economy, low unemployment and inflation), most people were happy with the condition of the country during Clinton's second term and did not want him removed from office; the Republican-controlled Congress persisted in trying to expel him anyway, and the party's favorability ratings reflected the unpopularity of the move. However, only before the impeachment period was the incidence of positive views of Clinton negatively related to the incidence of positive views of the Republican Party (Table 5).
A possible explanation for the curious discrepancy between the results using these two measures is that after the scandal broke, people tended to separate their assessments of Clinton's job performance from assessments of him as a person (Jacobson 2000); the proportion approving of Clinton's job performance rose, but the proportion with positive opinions of him fell (see Figures Ala and Alc in the Appendix). A negative opinion of Clinton's character would not necessarily affect opinions of the opposition party one way or the other. (6)
These relationships also varied across the Bush administration. During Bush's first term, evaluations of the Democratic Party were unrelated to opinions of Bush. As I noted in the earlier article, Bush achieved his highest …