Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Popularity in Central America: Parallels with the United States

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Presidential Popularity in Central America: Parallels with the United States

Article excerpt

This article builds on our previous work, which showed that presidential popularity in Costa Rica is responsive to economic conditions. Here the analysis covers, in addition to Costa Rica, four sister republics which only recently have undergone democratization. We find that, as in the United States, presidential popularity in Central America rises and falls with the state of the economy Also as in the United States, presidential popularity in Central America is cyclical, higher early and late in the presidential term. As new and tenuous as democracy is in most of the region, when it comes to rating presidents, Central Americans appear to use the same criteria as voters in the United States.

That economic conditions are associated with the popularity-or lack thereof-of elected governments in the United States and Europe is well established. Generally speaking, despite variations of time and place, in these stable democracies popular support for the incumbents, measured by pollsters or elections, falls with economic downturns and inflation. In the politics of these countries, "economics matters" (Lewis-Beck 1988: 22). So strong is the relationship between economic conditions and presidential popularity that economic variables take pride of place in most forecasting models (LewisBeck and Rice 1992; see also the collection of articles in Garand and Campbell 1996, a special issue of American Politics Quarterly devoted to forecasting U.S. presidential elections).

However, it is only within the last decade that researchers have begun to investigate whether similar patterns characterize popularity functions in less developed-and usually also less stable-countries (Paldam 1987; Seligson and Gomez 1987; Remmer 1991; Gasiorowski 1995; Pacek and Radcliff 1995). This study builds on our previous work, which showed that presidential popularity in Costa Rica is responsive to economic conditions (Cuzan and Bundrick 1991). Here the analysis covers, in addition to Costa Rica, four sister republics which only recently have undergone democratization. Our objective is modest: to inquire whether, and to what extent, economic and political variables found to be statistically correlated with presidential popularity in the United States and other stable democracies exhibit the same effects in Central America.

THE SETTING

The five countries of Central America are relatively small and economically undeveloped. In area they range from fewer than 10,000 square miles (El Salvador) to over 50,000 (Nicaragua); in population from 3 million (Costa Rica) to 10 million (Guatemala). Except in Nicaragua, less than half of the population lives in urban areas. From one fourth (Costa Rica) to more than half (Guatemala, Honduras) of the labor force is employed in agriculture, fishing, and related activities. In all countries agricultural products (coffee, bananas, cotton, sugar-the combination varies from country to country) make up most of the value of exports. Per capita income ranges from less than $ 1,000 in Nicaragua to a little over $2,000 in Costa Rica (CIA 1994). On "purchasing power parities," the range is from a low of $2,000 in Honduras to about $5,500 in Costa Rica. (PPP is a measure of per capita GDP "adjusted to account for detailed price comparisons of individual items covering over 150 categories of expenditure"-see Freedom Review January-February 1996: 19-20.) Life expectancy is around 65 for males and 70 for females except in Costa Rica, where it is 75 and 80, respectively Literacy ranges from a low of less than 60 percent in Guatemala to over 90 percent in Costa Rica. Thus, on broader measures of social development, Costa Rica is better off than its neighbors, indeed, than most of the world. In 1996, on the U.N. Human Development Index, Costa Rica ranks 31 (out of 174 countries), second in Latin America only to Argentina, whereas its Central American neighbors are bunched up below the world median: Guatemala ranks 112, Honduras 114, El Salvador 115, and Nicaragua 117 (U. …

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