The President's Effect on Partisan Attitudes

By Jacobson, Gary C. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The President's Effect on Partisan Attitudes


Jacobson, Gary C., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

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