Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Scandal, Elites, and Presidential Popularity: Considering the Importance of Cues in Public Support of the President

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Scandal, Elites, and Presidential Popularity: Considering the Importance of Cues in Public Support of the President

Article excerpt

Notwithstanding the enormous progress that has been made in developing theories which explain public support for the president, political scholars have yet to draw clear connections between elite messages and individual opinion formation insofar as it applies to public reactions to scandal. While it seems reasonable to assume that elite messages would influence presidential job approval, just as they would with any other attitudes, one might just as well assume that executive evaluations are themselves unique. Unlike typical questions of policy, presidential evaluations are thought to be based on tangible assessments of peace and prosperity. Consequently, elite perspectives on executive performance may be of little consequence when compared with a citizen's evaluations of competing expectations. This research attempts to identify conditions under which elite messages might be a pivotal factor in shaping perceptions of a chief executive. Building on the economic and psychological models of citizen evaluations, this revised theory of executive job approval may clarify how elites play a role in shaping presidential popularity.

The need to understand the interplay between political scandal and elite messages was made obvious in the months following the outbreak of the Lewinsky scandal. In the weeks following the outbreak of salacious revelations concerning Clinton and a White House intern, many pundits boldly predicted that if the president's denials were false, his administration would not survive. Some went as far as to predict his administration might crumble within the week.

   ... I agree that if he is not telling the truth, he's done. But
   let's just wait. He'll come out at some point and say something
   more. He has to. And at that point, either he and the evidence will
   satisfy the country that he's telling the truth or it won't. If
   he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in
   days. This isn't going to drag out. We're not going to be here
   three months from now talking about this (Sam Donaldson, ABC's
   This Week, January 25, 1998).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to regard such predictions as premature or overzealous. However, in looking back at the evidence, as it was understood by contemporary observers, there were reasons to believe that the end of the Clinton presidency was at hand. Initially, public support for Clinton fell significantly, with some news organizations reporting an eight-point drop in the polls. But once the public came to terms with the salacious accusations and the initial shock surrounding the allegations dissipated, support for the president rebounded. By his January 27th State of the Union address, Clinton's public support was higher than it had been before the scandal broke (Zaller 1998).

Attempts to explain Clinton's persistent public support often center on traditional notions of peace and prosperity. In times of robust economic growth, financial considerations trump any concerns over personal misconduct. Accordingly, Clinton's survival was not so much a function of political skill, but a by-product of citizen satisfaction with their pocketbooks. Indeed, since Mueller's landmark survey of longitudinal polling data concluded that executive support is largely a function of war, international crisis, and unemployment, many researchers have focused on little else in explaining presidential popularity (Mueller 1970; Kernell 1978; Hibbs, Rivers, and Vasilatos 1982; MacKuen 1983; Norpoth and Yantek 1983; Erikson 1989; Chappell 1991; MacKuen, Erikson, and Stimson 1992; Clarke and Stewart 1994).

This research builds upon the large body of literature concerning support for the president, by arguing that public reactions to political scandal are not quite as predictable as previous research may suggest. While traditional indicators of peace and prosperity are important indicators of executive job performance, when confronted with a major political event (like a scandal), attitudes toward the president may in part reflect elite discourse. …

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