Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Substance versus Style: Distinguishing Presidential Job Performance from Favorability

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Substance versus Style: Distinguishing Presidential Job Performance from Favorability

Article excerpt

No question about politics has been asked with as much frequency and on a topic of such general interest as the Gallup presidential approval question. And few items of public opinion research have garnered as much ink, both inside and outside academia. Unlike most survey instruments, which simply take the pulse of the public on particular issues, Gallup's approval question has been transformed into a political resource, something that presidents and their advisors hope to influence through strategic action (Bond and Fleisher 1990; Bond, Fleisher, and Wood 2003; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994.)

The rise of the Gallup approval series to its elevated status is in some ways ironic, as the meaning of the question began and remains ambiguous. As Edwards (1990, 3) reports, early in its history, the Gallup organization experimented with the wording of the question to avoid measuring how much people "liked" the president and settled on the current form of the question in 1945 because it best measured the "job approval" of the president. Yet despite Gallup's efforts at refinement, Neustadt (1960) describes the question as "unfocused," and Mueller notes, "many respondents when asked are able only vaguely to rationalize their positions" (1973, 18). The ambiguity of the question is also reflected in the various terms used to describe it. Early studies characterize it as "presidential popularity," while later studies tend to use the term "presidential approval" or "job approval." In an attempt to resolve this debate, Brody argues that popularity "is the most frequently used and utterly confusing of the synonyms for the public's evaluation of the job performance of the incumbent president. It is confusing because it connotes image rather than substance and surface rather than depth" (1991, 3). Despite these protestations, ambiguity about the question remains.

It is precisely around these issues of image and substance that the uncertainty about the Gallup question arises. Are responses to this question solely a reflection of presidential job performance, or do personal evaluations of the president play an important and identifiable role in respondents' answers? In their field essay on presidential approval, Gronke and Newman (2003) stress the need for studies like this one that integrate insights from economic-based, time-series analysis with findings about character assessment from cross-sectional analysis. Cross-sectional and panel studies find that presidential character matters in the public's assessment of the president and presidential candidates (Funk 1999; Kinder 1986) and is linked to presidential approval (Greene 2001). However, time-series studies of presidential approval (the vast majority) focus on the impact of economic conditions and world events, with little attention given to examining whether there is a personal dimension to the public's approval. (1) Research in this area is not just of empirical interest, however; it raises important normative issues as well. In some circles, there is concern that images will eclipse substance in politics, as voters are fooled by "smoke and mirrors" and ignore the impact of policy decisions (Waterman, Wright, and St. Clair 1999).

The analysis presented here investigates the role of the public's personal evaluation of the president in its assessment of the president over time. To identify and understand the personal component of the public's evaluation of the president, I create a quarterly measure of the president's favorability from 1977 to 2002. The favorability question has been asked repeatedly across presidential administrations, making it possible to compare presidents over time. In his cross-sectional study, Cohen (2000) provides some evidence that the favorability question is a valid measure of the personal dimension of the public's evaluation of the president by demonstrating its close link to questions about presidential character. I provide additional analysis to demonstrate the validity of the measure through a series of correlations between favorability and character questions measured over time, correlations of lags and leads between approval and favorability, and a regression analysis of economic variables on the favorability measure (to show the distinction between favorability and approval). …

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