The Polls: Presidential Traits and Job Approval: Some Aggregate-Level Evidence

Article excerpt

In a previous article in this journal, Cohen (2001) introduced time series measures of public perceptions of Bill Clinton's personal characteristics. Here, I explore the political impact of these perceptions, asking whether they affect the public's evaluations of presidential job performance. I find that they do, adding aggregate-level support to existing individual-level evidence of the importance of character assessments. Finding a connection between character perceptions and job approval in the aggregate time series context helps answer questions previous studies leave unresolved, with significant implications for our understanding of presidential approval and presidential politics more generally.

Does the American public's view of the president as a person affect its evaluations of his job performance? Presidency and public opinion scholars have been exploring this question since the public's surprising reaction to the Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton's subsequent impeachment. Although raised in a particular and dramatic context, this is a general question and its answer holds implications not only for our understanding of the Clinton presidency but also for our study of the relationship between the public and the president more generally. Extant studies of this question find considerable evidence that assessments of the president's personal characteristics are related to evaluations of his job performance, but to date, these studies rely on individual-level data and are therefore subject to the limits of that framework. This study uses the time series measures of presidential traits that Cohen (2001) introduced to bolster these individual-level findings with aggregate-level evidence that perceptions of Bill Clinton's personal characteristics affected his job approval ratings.

Examining the connections between views of Clinton's character and his approval ratings speaks to a number of politically and theoretically significant issues. First, assessing these connections can enhance our understanding of presidential approval ratings, which occupy an important place in presidential politics and have been a subject of study among presidency scholars for over 30 years (see Gronke and Newman 2003 for a review). Most of the vast literature on presidential approval focuses on the impact of economic conditions and major international and domestic events. Consequently, our understanding of character's role in these evaluations remains limited.

Several recent works have argued for a broader view of approval ratings, one that pays attention to the role public perceptions of the president's personal traits play in these evaluations. Theoretically, Kinder and other political psychologists draw from social psychological models to argue that perceptions of personal traits are important because when relatively inattentive and uninformed individuals are asked to evaluate political leaders, they do so as they would evaluate ordinary people--evaluating leaders, in part, as people (e.g., Kinder 1986; Rahn et al. 1990; Sullivan et al. 1990). Individuals can use their views of the president as a person as hints about the aspects of the president's activities about which they are ignorant. If a person is convinced that the president is an intelligent and strong leader, she may conclude that the president must be handling his job well, even though she may not pay much attention to what the president has done. In addition to using character as an information shortcut, there is plenty of evidence that, all else equal, the public simply prefers competent and trustworthy leaders. For example, Edwards's (1983, 189-91) study of public expectations of the president found that the public "had lofty expectations for [the president's] personal behavior." More recently, as Clinton's impeachment was drawing near, the 1998 National Election Study found 67 percent agreeing with the statement that "people who run for high public office should display higher moral standards than does the average citizen. …


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