Presidential Popularity Research Paper

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A president’s ‘popularity’ consists of the public’s affection for him and endorsement of his policies. Popularity becomes significant to the extent that it can be used by a president to achieve his policy goals. For much of the twentieth century, commentators discussed the ‘mandate’ that a president has received in an electoral victory for him and his party in Congress. A more recent development has been the attempt to analyze and measure a president’s popularity, defined as a resource enabling him to pursue goals that were not a product of that mandate. It is this latter point on which most recent scholarship has been focused following the publication of Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, arguably the most influential book on studies of the presidency. Neustadt stated that a president’s standing with the public, along with his professional reputation, was the base on which his influence and success would lie.

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The need that White House officials have shown to organize and mobilize a president’s popular standing stemmed from significant changes in the political environment during the second half of the twentieth century. Previously, the most important talent a president needed to gain support in the political system was to be able to bargain and negotiate with the independent political powers of Congress, the political parties, and the states. Without this collective mobilization of resources he did not have the ability to frame government policy. Important exceptions to this constitutional weakness of the office occurred during declared international wars such as World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson was able to direct policy without the normal deliberations and specific legislative powers granted by Congress, and during the extreme internal threat of the Civil War when President Lincoln asserted similar plenary authority.

The changes that led observers of the presidency to recognize the importance of his popularity as a major political resource occurred because of the erosion of hierarchy and authority among those in the political system whose support he needed to achieve his goals. After 1960, the fragmentation of institutional power led presidents and their advisers to try to gain and maintain the allegiance of a majority among the politically involved portions of the public. The diminished ability of a president to make arrangements within the small sphere of those who continuously engaged as primary actors in the political system required that he seek public support for almost allimportant domestic policies before they could be instituted.

Beginning with the Administration of Richard Nixon, the White House established and continued to develop institutions at the service of the president so that he could maintain continuous support for his conduct of the office, could gather public support for his policy direction, and combat his adversaries in the political system and the media whose activities weakened the president’s status with the public. As Nuestadt elucidated, presidential power was now dependent not only on his professional prestige among national political influentials but on his popularity and prestige among the public at large.

Changes in technology have also played a central role in the importance of presidential popularity as a major foundation on which a president depends. Until the third decade of the twentieth century, however, a president had no way of reaching a national audience whose attention he could command directly and simultaneously. This changed dramatically with the arrival of radio, film with sound in the ubiquitous newsreels in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, and the establishment of television as the primary universal channel of communication and news in the fifth and sixth decades, when a president could sell his policies directly to an audience made up of large segments of the public, an audience that could increase his influence with formal apparatus of power in the system.

An early prediction of the importance of presidential popularity may be found in the pre-presidential work of Woodrow Wilson. In series of lectures delivered in 1908 while still in the academic world, Wilson stated that the president ‘is the one person about whom a definite national opinion is formed, and, therefore, the one person who can form opinion by his own direct influence and act upon the whole country at once’ (Wilson 1961, p. 127.) Other major commentators on the presidency through the 1950s put little or no emphasis on the issue of popularity. Among the best-known authors of texts on the presidency during this era, Clinton Rossiter provided only passing mention of the consequences for a president of his standing with the public (Rossiter 1954). Rossiter did suggest that communication with the public is an important tool of presidential leadership. Edward Corwin, author of the most widely used text on the presidency, made no mention at all of popularity (Corwin 1989).

By the 1960s and 1970s, political scientists, journalists, and other observers recognized that there was an important relationship between what a president had been able to accomplish and his personal support among the public. Especially after the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, a president could no longer use his prestige as defender against a recognized adversary to gain support for his efforts.

Studying these phenomena, however, proved both difficult and elusive. What exactly was a president’s popularity? Did it stem from his personal skills in presenting himself, or from the benefits the public believed could be attributed to him? Did events drive his popularity up or down, or did his popularity enable him to undertake difficult and risky objectives, which, if successful, would make him loved and respected by the public? Furthermore, although you could show statistical correlations between the president’s standing with the public as measured by polls, surveys, and particular events of his administration, causal links would be much harder to establish. Attempts to analyze the hows and whys of the level of popular support a president received during his term in office did not necessarily establish the consequences of this support.

The issue of presidential popularity now consists of a body of work divided here into two categories:

(a) The first encompasses research into how to define and measure presidential popularity, and how to explain changes in that popularity over time. Some variables that are commonly offered as potential explanations for changes in presidential standing with the public are presidential actions, the president’s abilities as a communicator, news events, and the presentation of the news by the media as well as the general level of stability and prosperity in the nation.

(b) The second category includes work that addresses the question of how presidential popularity serves as a resource or constraint on a president in his dealings with other political actors. In particular, researchers in this area focus on a president’s institutional and personal efforts to use his popularity to garner support from other institutional and political supporters in the system.

1. Measuring Presidential Popularity

Efforts by scholars to measure and obtain data on the public’s perception and approval of a president have relied on polls, particular those published by the Gallup organization, which has provided results since the 1930s. From 1975 through 2000, Richard Brody provided the most prolific and important analysis summarizing public attitudes toward the president (Brody 1991; this book provides the best bibliographic source on works by Brody and others through 1991). In particular, Brody looked for correlations in the popular standing of the president, and public support for the president’s ability to handle economic, social, and international situations. Following the course of a president’s popularity during several administrations, he found that ‘news events are dynamic ingredients in the processes of opinion change.’ Further, ‘evidence of policy success and failure contained in daily news reports in the mass media’ are the basis on which the American people form and revise their collective evaluation of the president. (Brody 1991, p. 9)

Students of presidential popularity have paid a great deal of attention to the so-called ‘rally phenomenon,’ first put forward by John Mueller in 1970 (Mueller 1985). He suggested that poll data indicated that presidents received a significant boost in their popular rating from a public affected by patriotism when news events suggested that an international crisis could involve the safety of the nation or its military forces. The widespread dissemination of this theory during the Cold War led to the political charge that a president might undertake military action deliberately to distract the public from other failings. Subsequent research, however, has indicated that a president receives such a boost in support only if there is no counterelite opposing his action. Since the end of the Cold War, many international events have been greeted with debate rather than support by the opposition and the rally phenomenon seems much more ephemeral.

A continuing problem of this research has been the difficulty of determining the proximate causes of fluctuations in a president’s popularity. For example, although one can point out that a particular level of popularity was measured at the same time as certain events occurred, it is not clear whether there was support for a president’s policy because he was popular or because the public endorsed the policy. Further, as suggested by Paul Gromke and Brian Newman, poll standing may reflect an ‘aggregation of personal preferences’ rather than the ‘preferences of aggregates’ (see Gronke and Newman 2000)

2. The Fabric Of Presidential Popularity

The second line of study involves descriptive research emphasizing the action and/or statements of a president and his entourage as they attempt to bolster his standing with the public. Using interviews, observations, and reviewing documents, these researchers present a portrait of the importance of popularity as a factor determining a president’s status in the political system. In particular, they have focused on the methods the White House employs to enhance a president’s success in gaining approval for his administration. They also examine the activities of those in politics or working for news organizations who provide an alternative and frequently critical version of what is going on.

In Going Public, Samuel Kernell describes the process by which presidents have needed to gain public support in a political universe where persuading Congress or the bureaucracy involves approaching them with a powerful backing (Kernell 1997). In a study of the relationship between news organizations and the White House, Michael Grossman and Martha Kumar describe the institutionalization of White House operations designed to maximize the president’s standing through the news media and the efforts by news organizations to present an independent and alternative viewpoint (Grossman and Kumar 1981). In Congress and the Presidency, Nelson Polsby (1976) describes the difficult problem a president has in converting his public support to a body that has its own connection with the public: ‘It is hard for a President to change all this while explaining the intricacies of a particular issue over television. He can, however, communicate his concern about the issue … and, to a certain extent, set the terms in which it will be debated’ (p. 187).

Researchers of this type also have a problem determining whether a president’s standing is due to their efforts or other factors in the political environment. In spite of this lack of generally applicable tools of measurement, however, all researchers agree that what they have found has provided important information about how a president’s standing affects his success.


  1. Brody R A 1991 Assessing the President: The Media, Elıte Opinion and Public Support. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  2. Corwin E S 1989 The President: Office and Powers 1787–1984. New York University Press, New York
  3. Edwards G C 1989 At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  4. Gronke P, Newman B 2000 FDR to Clinton. A ‘state of the discipline’ review of presidential approval. Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, September
  5. Grossman M B, Kumar M J 1981 Portraying the President: The White House and the Media. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  6. Kernell S 1997 Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 3rd edn. Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington, DC
  7. Mueller J 1985 Wars, Presidents, and Public Opinion. Lanham, MD
  8. Polsby N 1976 Congress and the Presidency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  9. Rossiter C 1954 The American Presidency. Harcourt Brace, New York
  10. Wilson W 1961 Constitutional Government in the United States. Columbia University Press, New York
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