Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Opinion Formation, Polarization, and Presidential Reelection

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Opinion Formation, Polarization, and Presidential Reelection

Article excerpt

--George W. Bush, 2000

Despite George W. Bush's bold promise during the 2000 election campaign to unify the country, the American public became markedly more polarized while he was president. Although the public was deeply divided in their judgments of Bush and his policy goals, he won reelection in 2004 with a clear majority of the popular and Electoral College vote, increasing his margin of victory from four years earlier. In the face of such intense polarization, why did Bush enjoy electoral success? As scholars, journalists, and political commentators have sought to answer this question, there has been considerable debate about the dynamics and impact of public opinion about President Bush (Fiorina and Abrams 2008; Jacobson 2006; Nivola and Brady 2006). In this brief article, we provide historical and theoretical context by examining the dynamics of opinion formation and opinion change during a president's term in office.

Using the American National Election Study (NES) and other survey data to examine the six most recent presidencies, our analysis traces the empirical regularities of citizen learning about a sitting president. We show that each presidency creates an opportunity for citizens to acquire new information about the character, abilities, and policy preferences of the winning candidate, and this learning has consequences for the subsequent reelection contest.

Building on theories of information processing, we argue that citizen learning about a sitting president contributes to two distinct but simultaneous dynamics in public opinion over the course of a president's first term in office. First, for those individuals with prior opinions of the president, learning contributes to more polarized evaluations of the president by the next election. So whatever his stated intentions were, George W. Bush was to some degree destined to be a "divider" because polarization occurs within virtually every presidency.

Second, for those individuals initially uncertain about the president, learning contributes to opinion formation about the president by the time he stands for reelection. Following on a rich literature showing that risk aversion in the electorate tends to favor incumbents over challengers, we are left with a paradoxical aggregate pattern: Electoral contests with an incumbent presidential candidate are often marked by both a polarization of public opinion and an incumbency advantage. Thus, in contrast to the conclusions of some scholars that polarization dampened Bush's reelection margin (Campbell 2005) and the long-held assumption that moderation is the key to electoral victory (Downs 1957), our analysis shows that polarization tends to be greatest among those presidents who were successfully reelected.

Beyond the Campaign

The intensity of a lengthy U.S. presidential campaign creates a ripe environment for citizen learning. It is well documented that voters can learn during a presidential campaign and that learning is central to voter decision making (Alvarez 1998; Gelman and King 1993; Holbrook 1999). With the intensive media coverage, campaign advertising, campaign events, and increased political discussion, political campaigns provide an information-rich environment that helps voters in selecting a preferred candidate by election day. But there is no reason to expect such learning to end on election day. Following the election, the public has four years to develop and update opinions about the winning candidate as he governs. Moreover, even in an intense presidential race, there might be some individuals who do not receive the information they feel necessary to render an evaluation of a candidate, but who might eventually gather the necessary information between campaigns. The president is the most newsworthy and heavily covered person in American politics; even the most detached citizens are likely to encounter at least some information about the chief executive. …

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