Measuring Changes in American Party Reputations, 1939-2004

By Pope, Jeremy C.; Woon, Jonathan | Political Research Quarterly, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Measuring Changes in American Party Reputations, 1939-2004


Pope, Jeremy C., Woon, Jonathan, Political Research Quarterly


Scholars increasingly emphasize that party reputations are valuable electoral assets. The authors measure temporal change in the parties' relative reputations across several distinct policy areas and find that each party tends to have advantages on certain issues but that the patterns are far from permanent. Democrats have strong advantages on social welfare issues, but Republicans have made some gains. Republican advantages on taxes and "law and order" have been weaker. The authors also find that party competition has strengthened impressions of the parties. Results support the notion that parties carry a collective-if occasionally transitory-reputation on a host of issues.

Keywords: political parties; reputation; competence; issue ownership; public opinion; aggregate survey data

According to the issue ownership theory of elections, the relative reputations of the two major political parties matter because candidates have an advantage when their party "owns" the set of issues that voters are concerned about on Election Day (Petrocik 1996).1 Democrats are usually viewed as better handling social welfare and civil rights issues, while Republicans are typically seen as better able to deal with "law and order" and national defense. But we do not expect reputations to persist indefinitely, nor do we expect the public to universally agree on the parties' issue-handling abilities. How strong are the parties' relative reputations? What proportion of the public thinks that either party owns an issue at all? And how have these aspects of the parties' reputations changed over time?

In this article, we address these questions by presenting and analyzing new measures of the parties' relative reputations by issue and over time. Our measures are constructed by aggregating survey questions from many different public opinion polls, and our work differs from previous analyses of party evaluations that heavily rely on the open-ended party "likes" and "dislikes" questions of the National Election Studies (NES) (Baumer and Gold 1995; Campbell et al. 1960; Konda and Sigelman 1987; Nie, Petrocik, and Verba 1976; Sanders 1988; Wattenberg 1984). For example, Geer (1991, 1992) uses the NES open-ended data to trace changes in party evaluations from 1952 to 1988 on a range of issues and finds that the Democratic Party remained favored on most New Deal social welfare issues but that the Republican Party gained on economic ones.

The primary limitation of using the NES open-ended question is that it captures the opinions of only respondents for whom an issue is already highly salient - that is, respondents who offer comments about an issue without being prompted. This is problematic in light of issue ownership theory because (according to the theory) an issue's electoral salience is endogenous to candidate behavior. That is, candidates seek to raise the electoral salience of issues owned by their party and to lower the salience of issues owned by the other party (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994; Petrocik 1996; Simon 2002). Thus, it is important that we measure the parties' relative reputations among the public as a whole to fully assess the potential advantage that candidates would gain by emphasizing an issue. This conception of the potential advantage that may be harnessed by strategic candidates is similar to Key's (1961, 264-69) idea of "latent public opinion." In other words, if we measure reputations using only open-ended questions, it is likely that we will fail to accurately capture the full extent of this latent opinion, which is a problem of selection bias.

Our measurement of party reputations uses exactly the same type of data as Petrocik (1996). He uses ABC/Washington Post and CBS/New York Times surveys to measure perceptions of issue ownership and shows that Democrats are favored on social issues, such as education and protecting disadvantaged groups, while Republicans are favored on a range of issues, including crime, moral values, defense, foreign policy, and taxation. …

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