Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Polls: The Components of Presidential Favorability

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Polls: The Components of Presidential Favorability

Article excerpt

Public opinion toward the presidency and its incumbent is complex and multifaceted. A rich understanding of public views of the president would include knowledge about public expectations, public reactions to presidents and their actions, evaluations of job performance and leadership, as well as assessments of the person in office and the implications of those personal assessments on public regard for the incumbent. As students of the presidency, we have barely tilled this terrain except for the burgeoning and now massive literature on the dynamics of presidential approval. Without reviewing or citing that literature here, it is fair to say that presidential job approval moves up and down in reasonable fashion, being influenced by the (perceived) state of the economy, foreign affairs crises, and important events, while presidential attempts to manipulate approval levels through symbolic and publicity events, although sometimes creating marginal effects, tend to be ephemeral. Still, the importance of job approval to the president is debated in the literature. Many suggest it to be a vital source of presidential influence, while others argue a more limited role.

The case of Bill Clinton in 1998 and early 1999, the period of the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings, is instructive in helping us assess what we know and do not know about public opinion toward the presidency. During that period, some pundits and observers predicted the end of the Clinton presidency, that he would be convicted of the impeachment charges levied against him, citing the fact that his favorability poll results had taken a nosedive. Others pointed, in contrast, to his high job approval ratings, which seemed to gain ground over the course of that fateful year, as reason to expect his survival to the end of his constitutional term of office. Still others were perplexed by the disconnect between his approval and favorability ratings. It was clear, however, that no one really had a firm grip on public assessments of the president.

One reason for the lack of knowledge and consensus about the role of favorability, or what some term likeability, is that unlike the more familiar Gallup-styled job approval question series, data on presidential favorability are less prevalent. However, as I have reported in two earlier articles in this journal (Cohen 1999a, 1999b), the commercial polling outfits have been tracking presidential favorability for nearly a decade now. These firms use widely different question formats, and the questions posed themselves seem vague and ambiguous and, thus, might not elicit solid data with which to work. But by using techniques developed by Stimson (1999), one can construct a reasonably well-behaved favorability series, as I have demonstrated (Cohen 1999b).

Still, it is not all that clear what these favorability items mean. In this article, I address three questions: (1) At the individual level, what is the relationship between favorability and job approval? (2) Who likes and dislikes the president, and how does this compare with who approves and disapproves of his job performance? and (3) What are the components of favorability?

The analysis presented here relies on a unique poll taken in February 1997 by the Gallup organization. That poll asked a battery of questions related to favorability, which gives us an opportunity to investigate some of the sources of (un)favorable attitudes toward the president and hopefully come to better understand their meaning.

The February 1997 Gallup Poll

The February 1997 Gallup Poll asked respondents a battery of questions related to favorability. The poll begins the favorability series with its standard question: "Next, I'd like your overall impression of some people in the news. As I read you each name please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of this person--or if you never heard of him or her." The survey asked about Bill Clinton and then Hillary Rodham Clinton. …

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