Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Coevolution of Affect toward Presidents and Their Parties

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Coevolution of Affect toward Presidents and Their Parties

Article excerpt

This article reports the results of new research undertaken as part of a broader project examining how postwar U.S. presidents have influenced their party's popular standing, reputation, electoral fortunes, and attractiveness as an object of identification over both the short and long runs. The research published so far has found the president's influence to be strong and pervasive. Popular ratings of the president's party generally, and of its congressional wing and its leaders specifically, vary directly with presidential job approval and favorability ratings. Perceptions of the president's ideology shape perceptions of his party's ideology. Opinions of the president's performance have strongly influenced judgments of relative party competence in dealing with the nation's most important problem in every administration since Harry Truman's. The president's perceived success in handling specific policy domains also shapes his party's reputation for managing them. Performance evaluations of presidents affect their parties' electoral prospects as measured between elections by the generic House vote intention question as well as their actual fortunes on election day, both directly and through their impact on party identification (or party ID), which moves systematically in response to changes in evaluations of the president's performance at both the individual and aggregate levels (Jacobson 2009a, 2012, 2013, 2015). These findings leave no doubt that postwar presidencies have had both specific and diffuse effects on how Americans come to perceive, evaluate, feel about, and identify with the national parties.

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 and continue to exert a powerful influence on evaluations of their performance throughout their time in office (Jacobson 2011, 5-6). In previous analyses, I treated the initial reactions to each administration as a starting point, the product of existing configurations of public attitudes toward and beliefs about parties that were subsequently updated and revised in response to developments during a president's years of service. For the research reported here, I move backward from this starting point to examine the ways in which attitudes toward presidents and their parties come to be linked in the public mind. I also move forward beyond the president's years in office to gauge how this linkage decays when presidents are no longer on the ballot and new candidates emerge to take up their party's banner. Constrained by the available data, my focus here is on the affective component of political evaluations: how partisanship influences affect toward presidential candidates and presidents, and how affect toward these party figures in turn influences feelings about their parties, over the course of political careers. To anticipate, I find clear and consistent evidence that links between party and candidate affect are comparatively modest at first, increase sharply during the initial campaign for the White House for both candidates, tighten further when the winner seeks reelection, and then atrophy once the president leaves office. In this sequence, the causal arrow runs first from party affect (manifest in party identification) to candidate affect but gradually shifts direction to run from candidate or president affect to party affect (and party identification). I also find that the relative impact on party affect of the president and prospective or actual successors within the same party varies over time in a way that underlines the president's leading role in shaping feelings about his party.

Theoretical Considerations

These patterns, detailed and documented in the sections to follow, are fully consistent with constructivist models of the survey response. According to Zaller and Feldman's version, most citizens do not hold preformed attitudes that they express when questioned in a survey; "rather they carry around in their heads a mix of only partially consistent ideas and considerations. …

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