Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Polls: The Coalitional President from a Public Opinion Perspective

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Polls: The Coalitional President from a Public Opinion Perspective

Article excerpt

As Thomas Cronin (1980; also Cronin and Genovese 2004) insightfully pointed out thirty years ago, the presidency is beset with paradoxes, at times being tugged, pulled, or pushed in differing and often contradictory directions. For instance, on the one hand the president is a symbol, representative, and leader of the entire nation. But the president is also a partisan who seeks benefits for some sectors of the polity, such as his party and those who voted for him. Presidents seek these particularized group-specific benefits as they try to build coalitions in support of their electoral and policy goals. Thus we may also view the president from a coalitional perspective, in which he builds a support coalition composed of specific groups and population subsets of the nation (Seligman and Covington 1989; Edwards 2000; Mueller 1970, 1973).

The coalitional perspective hypothesizes that groups and/or population subsets will hold the president accountable for conditions and actions that specifically affect and/or target group members. In this article, I test this coalitional hypothesis using newly available monthly tracking polls for each of the fifty states. Do state mass publics hold the president accountable for national economic performance, as the national leader perspective hypothesizes, or do their evaluations of the president hinge on state-specific factors, such as the performance of the state economy and presidential attention to the states, as the coalitional hypothesis would predict?

In the next section, I review these two competing perspectives on the presidency, the national leader versus the coalition builder. Although more research exists on public approval of the president from the national leader perspective, a small but important strain is compatible with the coalitional viewpoint. Then I discuss the data used to test these two competing views, which consist of monthly tracking polls across all fifty states from SurveyUSA. Such data have certain advantages over the Official State Job Approval Ratings (JAR) data (Beyle, Niemi, and Sigelman 2002), the other major source of information on state public attitudes toward the president, as reviewed in more detail below. Succeeding sections present the specific hypotheses for testing and the data analysis. The conclusion discusses the relative importance of these two perspectives for understanding presidential approval and directions for future research.

Two Perspectives on the President: National Leader versus Coalition Builder

At one and the same time, the president is the nation's leader but also a partisan who seeks to benefit some sectors of the polity over others, for instance, his party versus the opposition or those who voted for him as opposed to those who did not. Much research on the president assumes the first perspective, with the corollary assumptions that the public will hold the president responsible for the overall state of the nation. Studies in this tradition have, for instance, demonstrated that the state of the national economy affects public evaluations of the president.

It makes much sense to view the president as a national leader. The president, along with the vice president, is the only elected official to have the entire nation as his constituency. Furthermore, presidents preside over national ceremonies and occasions, such as the inauguration and the annual State of the Union address, something no other elected official can claim as a fundamental part of their post. In foreign policy, the president speaks for the nation, again something denied to any other elected official. And while the secretary of state represents the nation to other nations, the secretary does so as the president's agent. Along with these national duties comes accountability, as the public holds the president accountable for the state of the nation, its economic and domestic health, and its policies toward other nations. A large literature has studied this public accountability function, the most impressive and repeated finding that the health of the national economy affects public approval of the president (the literature is huge; see the review in Lewis-Beck and Stegmeier, forthcoming). …

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