Going Public When Opinion Is Contested: Evidence from Presidents' Campaigns for Supreme Court Nominees, 1930-2009

By Cameron, Charles; Park, Jee-Kwang | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Going Public When Opinion Is Contested: Evidence from Presidents' Campaigns for Supreme Court Nominees, 1930-2009


Cameron, Charles, Park, Jee-Kwang, Presidential Studies Quarterly


"Going public" is an important weapon for presidents as they seek legislative victories in Congress (Kernell 1986). Indeed, some have called it the core governing strategy of modern presidents (Edwards 2003).

Not surprisingly, studies of going public occupy a significant place in contemporary scholarship about the presidency. And, political scientists have learned a great deal about the practice (Edwards 2009 provides a masterful review). For example, historical studies have clarified the development of the practice over time, in a variety of forms and guises (Bimes 2009; Gamm and Smith 1998; Laracey 2002; Medhurst 1996; Tulis 1987). Empirical studies of its contemporary practice have moved from examples and anecdotes to systematic data on presidential efforts, the media response, the impact on public opinion, and consequences in Congress (Canes-Wrone 2001a, 2006; Cohen 2008, 2010; Edwards 2003; Rottinghaus 2010). Exciting new work integrates going public into comprehensive accounts of presidents' legislative strategies (Beckmann 2010).

Progress in theory development has been somewhat slower. Early studies of going public adopted a "political capital" theory in which the president could move public opinion rather easily, simply through the exertion of effort (Kernell 1986). A major refinement came with conditional escalation theory in which the popularity of issues acts as a constraint on the tactic's effectiveness and hence the president's willingness to employ it (Canes-Wrone 2001b, 2006). However, both approaches implicitly assume an uncontested information environment--the president's opponents do not initiate a public fight or countermobilize in response to a presidential initiative. Some scholars have begun to explore a further development, which we call opinion contest theory. This approach assumes the president faces competition in messages and hence a struggle over public opinion (see, e.g., Jacobs and Shapiro 2000; Rottinghaus 2010). Contested opinion theory adds a new level of strategic complexity to going public and makes its effectiveness more problematic.

In this article, we explore opinion contest theory and contrast it with political capital theory, using new data on going public and new data on interest group mobilization against the president. The data come from the same policy event repeated many times across multiple presidencies: presidential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. This research design may be distinguished from those involving repeated instances of the same speech (e.g., the State of the Union speech; see Cohen 1997), repeated instances of the same type of rhetoric (e.g., economic appeals; see Wood 2007), or multiple kinds of rhetoric across many programs or events (Canes-Wrone 2006; Edwards 2003; Rottinghaus 2010). By focusing on the same policy event, we implicitly control for many factors that vary across issues, programs, or policy arenas. In addition, we can tailor the predictions and our empirical models to the specific context of Supreme Court nominations. By the same token, however, our findings may be somewhat special to Supreme Court nominations.

That acknowledged, we examine the triggers for going public over Supreme Court nominees, the content of the president's messages, and their impact on Senate voting on nominees. Because we collect consistent data on interest group mobilization, we are able to explicitly address opinion contest theory. In addition, the length of our data--covering some 80 years, from 1930 to 2009--allows us to examine the historical development of going public over much of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, at least in this one arena.

There is little prior research on presidents going public on behalf of Supreme Court nominees. We discuss the principal study, Johnson and Roberts (2004), below. However, useful comparisons come from work examining going public on lower court nominations (Holmes 2007, 2008) and work examining interest group activity during nominations (Scherer 2005); for broader comparisons across types of nominations, see Krutz, Fleisher, and Bond 1998. …

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