Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

How Presidents Shape Their Party's Reputation and Prospects: New Evidence

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

How Presidents Shape Their Party's Reputation and Prospects: New Evidence

Article excerpt

This article reports research undertaken as part of a larger project examining how postwar U.S. presidents have affected their party's popular standing and reputation over both the short and long run. The guiding idea behind the project was spelled out in an earlier publication in this journal:

The president is his party's dominant public face. His words and actions articulate and define his party's current principles and objectives. Judgments about his competence in managing domestic and foreign affairs inform assessments of his party's competence in such matters. The components of a president's supporting coalition, and the interests he favors while governing, help to define the party's constituent social base and thus appeal as an object of individual identification. People's affective reactions to the president, whatever their source, inevitably color their feelings about the other politicians in his coalition. Every president thus shapes public attitudes toward his party as well as beliefs about who and what it stands for and how well it governs when in office; insofar as the party label represents a brand name, the president bears prime responsibility for the brand's current image and status. (Jacobson 2012, 684)

Presidents do not assume office with a blank partisan canvas, of course. Existing partisan biases and party images shape reactions to future presidents as soon as they arrive on the national stage (1) and continue to have a potent effect on evaluations of their performance throughout their time in office (Jacobson 2011, 5-6). For each administration, however, these initial reactions can be considered a starting point, a product of the existing configurations of public attitudes toward and beliefs about parties that are subsequently updated and revised in response to developments during the president's years of service.

Analyses published so far have provided abundant evidence of the president's pervasive influence on his party's standing, reputation, and electoral fortunes. Popular ratings of the president's party (positive or favorable evaluations) vary directly with presidential job approval and favorability ratings (summary evidence is in Table 1). Affective reactions to the president's party reflect affective reactions to the president (as measured by the American National Election Studies [ANES] feeling thermometers and for every president since the question has been asked, beginning with Richard Nixon). Perceptions of the president's ideology shape perceptions of his party's ideology (as measured by assigned location on the ANES 7-point liberal-conservative scale, Nixon through Barack Obama). Presidential approval has had a powerful effect on judgments of relative party competence in dealing with the nation's most important problem in every administration from Harry Truman's through Obama's. Both individual and aggregate partisanship move in response to changes in individual and collective evaluations of the president's performance. And of course the president's party's electoral fortunes rise or fall with his public standing during the election season (Jacobson 2009, 2012, 2013).

In this article, I review the evidence regarding some additional ways in which presidents might influence their party's reputation and image. I examine how presidents affect Americans' views of the congressional parties and their leaders; how evaluations of the president's performance in particular domains (managing the economy and foreign policy, combating terrorism) affect his party's reputation for managing these domains; how presidents shape perceptions of their parties' concern for ordinary people; and how presidents affect their party's electoral support in generic straw polls taken between elections. I also take a further look at how presidents shape their party's standing over the long term by influencing the initial partisan attachments of young voters who enter the electorate during their administrations. …

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