Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Partisan Polarization and the Effect of Congressional Performance Evaluations on Party Brands and American Elections

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Partisan Polarization and the Effect of Congressional Performance Evaluations on Party Brands and American Elections

Article excerpt

In recent years, scholars of political parties and elections around the globe have devoted extensive study toward understanding how party polarization affects the criteria voters use to determine their party preferences (e.g., Clark and Leiter 2014; Dalton 2008; J. Green 2007; Pardos-Prado 2012). These ongoing debates in the comparativist literature raise an interesting question in the American setting. Although survey research consistently finds that performance evaluations of a president play a significant role in the public's overall attitudes toward his party (e.g., Jacobson 2012), it has not found this to be the case for performance evaluations of Congress. Seminal scholarship in American politics suggests that citizens' evaluations of the performance of the U.S. Congress do not affect their attitudes toward the parties (e.g., Stokes and Miller 1962). However, these studies date from a period of historically low polarization of congressional parties. One possibility, suggested in part by the comparativist literature (e.g., Clark and Leiter 2014; Pardos-Prado 2012), is that in times of greater party polarization in Congress-such as the current era of American politics-congressional performance may play an enhanced role in shaping citizens' feelings toward the parties and their preferences in elections. If so, this would not only upend conventional scholarly1 wisdom in American politics, but it would also inform an important debate among comparative scholars of parties and elections.

This study examines whether variation in the level of party polarization in Congress-and thus the clarity of congressional politics-makes any difference in how Americans evaluate U.S. political parties. First, I argue that the greater the level of partisan polarization in Congress, the more likely citizens' evaluations of congressional performance will shape their attitudes toward the majority party brand specifically. This is because more distinct parties in Congress make it easier for Americans to associate congressional performance with a single party-the majority party-as opposed to a muddled collectivity. If citizens like how Congress is performing under the leadership of the majority party, this boosts the overall brand favorability of that party.

Second, as a consequence of the first argument, I argue that greater partisan polarization in Congress also increases the effect that congressional performance evaluations have in a variety of elections-even those outside of Congress. The literature shows that a party's overall brand affects the electoral fortunes of all candidates running under that party label. Thus, any factor that harms or benefits a party's brand has the potential to affect all partisan elections. If greater partisan polarization in Congress increases the effect of congressional performance on party brand favorability (see my first argument), then polarization should also increase the effect of congressional performance on a variety of elections up and down the ballot, including presidential elections and state legislative elections.

Perhaps because of the longstanding conventional wisdom first articulated by Stokes and Miller, these arguments have yet to be systematically tested in the context of American politics. This study attempts to do fill this gap. I begin by reviewing the literature on the electoral importance of party brand favorability and its connection, or lack thereof, to congressional performance evaluations. Next, I present the theoretical basis for my argument regarding polarization and identify specific hypotheses to be tested. The analysis then proceeds in two parts. First, I analyze how variation in the actual level of partisan polarization in Congress conditions the effect of congressional performance evaluations on favorability toward each party. Second, I analyze how partisan polarization in Congress conditions the effect of congressional performance evaluations on presidential elections and state legislative elections. …

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