Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Who Is Responsible, the Incumbent or the Former President? Motivated Reasoning in Responsibility Attributions

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Who Is Responsible, the Incumbent or the Former President? Motivated Reasoning in Responsibility Attributions

Article excerpt

The recovery from the 2008 recession consisted of four years of high unemployment and low economic growth in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Incumbents can generally interpret such negative economic conditions as dire warning signs of an impending electoral defeat. Political scientists since Kramer (1971) have demonstrated a clear link between economic performance and electoral outcomes, and almost every forecast of presidential elections includes objective economic indicators (Holbrook 2012). However, the sluggish economic recovery did not sink President Barack Obama's reelection hopes, and Mitt Romney failed to unseat him in November 2012. Obama won reelection in spite of exit poll results that showed overwhelming majorities of voters holding negative perceptions of economic conditions, not thinking they were better off than four years prior, and viewing the economy as the top issue in the election. To explain this seeming contradiction, many journalists and pundits seized upon a result in the same exit poll that showed many voters simply were not holding those evaluations against President Obama. Instead, a majority of voters did not think Obama was at fault for economic conditions, and they were more likely to place the blame on former President George W. Bush by a 20% margin (Cass 2012; Trumbull 2012). As Edwards and Gallup (1990, 138) note in their analysis of the economy's effect on presidential approval ratings, "Blame is not automatic for presiding over hard times."

This recent election highlights how important it is for political scientists to consider how individuals ascribe responsibility to politicians. These responsibility judgments have a profound effect on candidate evaluation and voting behavior (see Feldman 1982; Lau and Sears 1981; Lowry, Alt, and Ferree 1998; Peffley 1984; Sniderman and Brody 1977), and deserve greater attention in the literature. Since people often vote based on whether or not they see a politician responsible for national conditions, it is vital for political scientists to develop a deeper understanding of how citizens make responsibility attributions in various contexts. Importantly, a voter's responsibility attribution does not occur in a vacuum; this article argues that the decision of whether to hold a current officeholder responsible will depend on voters' perceptions of the issue, their partisan attachments, and the responsibility they assign to the former officeholder. Following a transition of power from one administration to the next, the political significance of responsibility attributions can be dramatic; whether voters ascribe responsibility for conditions to the current or former president can greatly affect the incumbent's job approval, the "political capital" held by the incumbent when implementing his agenda, and the willingness of voters to support or oppose his party in upcoming elections.

Research has shown that responsibility attributions are often driven by partisan motives (e.g., Atkeson, and Maestas 2012; Brown 2010; Maestas et al. 2008; Malhotra and Kuo 2010; Rudolph 2003b; Sirin and Villalobos 2011). This study builds upon that literature by examining how citizens determine responsibility across presidential administrations in light of the confusion caused by a presidential transition of power. This article extends the findings of these studies to show that the partisan biases that often accompany the attribution process are not limited to the assessment of current political leaders. Instead, consistent with theories of motivated reasoning, citizens credit and blame both current and former officeholders according to their partisan leanings in order to achieve harmony between their partisanship and their evaluations of issue conditions.

Following a review of the attribution and motivated reasoning literatures, I first establish the relevance of presidential transitions in the attribution process by showing that uncertainty exists regarding who is responsible for conditions early in a presidential administration. …

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