The Polls: Public Favorability toward the First Lady, 1993-1999

By Cohen, Jeffrey E. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Polls: Public Favorability toward the First Lady, 1993-1999


Cohen, Jeffrey E., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The institutional presidency has expanded to engulf the offices of the vice president and the First Lady under its field of influence. One motivation for such institutional expansion of the presidency is that these, and similar offices, provide the president with policy-making and/or political support. We see the logic of policy-making support in the case of the vice president, where vice presidents, like Walter Mondale for Jimmy Carter and Albert Gore for Bill Clinton, could bring their talent and Washington experience to presidential policy-making councils.(1)

While First Ladies may also bring policy-making and other types of advice to presidents, the institutional development of the First Lady's office can perhaps better be understood from the logic of presidential public relations. Presidents may view their First Ladies as potential political assets. In his race for the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton advertised that voting for him was also a vote for Hillary Clinton (Troy 1997, 346; Burden and Mughan 1999). Thus, presidents might reckon that when they are suffering public criticism and downward sliding polls, they can exhibit their First Lady on the public arena if she is herself popular. Or the First Lady might be especially important in attracting and/or maintaining the support of women. Use of a First Lady in this fashion might help distract the public from its negative orientations toward the president and thus somewhat mute the president's public opinion troubles.

In my previous article for the journal, I attempted to test this idea by marshaling data on public approval of Mrs. Clinton (Cohen 2000). That analysis indicated no apparent causal connection between First Lady and presidential approval in either direction, that is, from presidential approval to First Lady approval or from approval of the First Lady to approval of the president. The limited number of public-approval polls on the First Lady, and the ambiguity of what it means to ask the public to assess the "job" or "role" or "position" of the First Lady, sorely limited that analysis.

In this article, I continue the theme of that article but rely on a new, more complete data series of public evaluations toward the First Lady. Whereas approval polls of the First Lady are both rare and ambiguous, favorability ratings of the First Lady, especially during the tenure of Mrs. Clinton, are quite common. Below, I describe the construction of a monthly index of favorability to the First Lady that spans from January 1993 through June 1999, a total of seventy-eight months. Then, I discuss some of the properties of this data series, relate it to presidential favorability for the same time period, and attempt to explain the dynamics of First Lady favorability.

A Monthly Index of First Lady Public Favorability

For nearly every month that Mrs. Clinton has been the First Lady, one polling organization or another has asked the public about its opinion of her, whether respondents had a favorable or unfavorable impression of the First Lady.(2) From these data, one can construct a time series of public favorability toward this First Lady, providing us with a history of public regard to Mrs. Clinton, something not available for previous First Ladies, due to insufficient data.

There are several ways that one can "combine" these data to create a monthly (or other time unit) series. For instance, in a recent article, Burden and Mughan (1999) average the favorability results of polls from CBS/New York Times, Gallup/USA/Today/CNN and Yankelovich/Time/CNN from January 1993 through December 1997 by month. They control for differences in "don't know" rates. One limitation of their approach, which relies on only three survey organizations, is a relatively large number of months with missing data, ten of sixty (16.7 percent). To fill in the data gaps, they interpolate by taking the average between the bounding months.

I rely on a different technique, developed by Stimson (1999), that helps us employ a larger number of survey organizations. …

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