The Effects of the George W. Bush Presidency on Partisan Attitudes

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"Hello, I'm Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. As the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan prepares to choose its nominee for president of the United States, Florida is honored to host tonight's Republican president debate." (1) The seven Republican candidates invited to Orlando for the October 2007 event also seemed to have forgotten about their current leader, George W. Bush; he was mentioned only twice, once critically and once neutrally, while Reagan's name was invoked reverently a dozen times, a pattern repeated throughout the Republican pre-primary debate season. (2) The party's lineup of speakers at the Republican convention in August was equally reluctant to acknowledge the man who had led the party to victory in 2000 and 2004, referring to Bush by name only six times over four days--with Laura Bush accounting for five of the mentions. (3)

A party cannot, however, expect voters to overlook an unpopular incumbent president no matter how convenient it might be, even in the unlikely event that the opposing party were to let it happen (the Democrats' speakers mentioned Bush's name more than 140 times at their convention (4)). Like it or not, a sitting president is his party's public face. Although presidents sometimes deemphasize party ties and, sincerely or for strategic reasons, aspire to public images that transcend partisanship (Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton's "triangulation" strategy), the president's party cannot escape the shadow cast by its leading figure. For better or worse, the president's words and actions largely 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 basis and thus appeal as an object of individual identification. In short, every administration inevitably shapes public perceptions about who and what the president's party stands for and how well it governs when in office.

All of this is arguably even truer of George W. Bush than of any recent predecessor. With few exceptions, his administration pursued a partisan agenda using partisan tactics while receiving extraordinarily high levels of support from Republican leaders in Congress and elsewhere. Even as Bush's approval ratings drifted well south of 50% after the start of his second term, congressional Republicans remained largely supportive, if only because their own core Republican constituents continued to give the president high approval ratings (Jacobson 2008). Bush also devoted more energy than any other modern president to party building, fundraising, and campaigning for his partisan team (Milkis and Rhodes 2007). Finally, there is little ambiguity about the coalition he represented and served: social and religious conservatives, the corporate sector, antitax enthusiasts, and foreign policy hawks.

The unusually close connection between Bush and the Republican Party makes his presidency particularly useful for examining the effect of popular assessments of a president on his party's standing with the public. Like party politicians, political scientists believe that a president's popular standing matters for his party; no one has to my knowledge argued that a party is not better off with a popular than an unpopular standard-bearer. There is no consensus, however, on exactly how and to what extent the public's reaction to the president shapes the partisan landscape. The research literature has addressed two main aspects of the relationship between president and party: how presidents have affected their party's electoral fortunes and how presidents have influenced individual and mass partisanship. Data are now available for examining the president's effect on his party's popular standing between elections as well. …