The Bush Presidency and the American Electorate

By Jacobson, Gary C. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Bush Presidency and the American Electorate


Jacobson, Gary C., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Introduction

George W. Bush entered the White House with the electorate evenly divided between the parties and sharply polarized along party lines, not least on the legitimacy of his victory. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans of all political persuasions rallied to his side, and questions about his legitimacy no longer even appeared in public opinion polls. Bush subsequently enjoyed the longest stretch of approval ratings above 60 percent of any president in 40 years. (1) On the strength of Bush's popularity and leadership in the war on terrorism, his party avoided the usual midterm decline in 2002; Republicans picked up seats in both houses and took undisputed control of Congress.

Clearly, the national trauma inflicted by the attacks and Bush's response to the crisis radically altered the president's standing with the American people, to the manifest benefit of his fellow Republicans in 2002. The question remains, however, whether September 11, and the public's strong endorsement of the president's response to the crisis, has had any lasting effect on partisan attitudes, the partisan balance, or the degree of polarization in the electorate. The same question, of course, applies to public responses to the war in Iraq. In this article, I examine the rich trove of public opinion data from the hundreds of national surveys taken during the George W. Bush administration to consider both the immediate and longer term electoral effects of the president's first two years in office and, more speculatively, the military victory in Iraq.

G.W. Bush and the Electorate before September 11

The 2000 election crowned three decades of growing partisan polarization among both American politicians and the voters who elect them. By every measure, politics in Washington had become increasingly polarized along partisan and ideological lines in the decades between the Nixon and Clinton administrations (Aldrich 1995; Rohde 1991; Sinclair 2000; Jacobson 2000a; McCarty et al. 1997; Fleisher and Bond 1996). The fierce partisan struggle provoked by the Republicans' attempt to impeach and remove Clinton during his second term epitomized the trend (Jacobson 2000b). Indeed, partisan rancor in Washington had grown so conspicuous that it became a central target of Bush's 2000 campaign. Promising to be "a uniter, not a divider," Bush emphasized his status as a Washington outsider with "no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years" who could "change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect." (2)

Bush's implicit premise, that partisan polarization is an inside-the-beltway phenomenon with little popular resonance, was belied by the conditions of his election. Extending the long-term trend toward greater partisan and ideological coherence in the electorate (Jacobson 2000c), the 2000 presidential election produced the highest levels of party line voting in the 48-year history of the National Election Studies. Ticket splitting fell to its lowest level since 1960; the number of districts delivering pluralities to House and presidential candidates of different parties was the smallest since 1952 (Jacobson 2003a). The elections also highlighted the emergence of distinct regional and cultural divisions between the parties' respective electoral coalitions at both the presidential and congressional levels (Jacobson 2001a). In short, G.W. Bush entered the White House on the heels of the most partisan election in half a century.

Any hope Bush might have entertained of bridging the partisan divide was dashed by the denouement in Florida, which not only put politicians and activists on both sides at each other's throats, but also split ordinary citizens decisively along party lines. Surveys found self-identified Republicans and Democrats in nearly complete disagreement on who had actually won the most votes in Florida, how the candidates were handling the situation, whether the Supreme Court decided properly and impartially, and who was the legitimate victor (Jacobson 2001a). …

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