Since the 1930s, polling organizations have asked Americans whether they “approve or disapprove of the job the incumbent is doing as president.” In the early 1970s, John Mueller started an academic industry by asking what drives these evaluations. American politics and the tools available to examine it have changed dramatically since then, inspiring a burst of research on presidential approval in the 1990s. We review this new body of literature, arguing that it builds on but differs importantly from earlier approval studies. Since Mueller’s writing, scholars have expanded his relatively simple model, taking account of presidents’ goals and personal characteristics, other political actors, the ubiquitous media, and an inattentive public. We describe three waves of research, focusing on the most recent wave. We suggest that history, along with new intellectual currents, data, and methods have enabled each wave to incorporate more of political, social, and psychological reality. Finally, we identify the issues most likely to motivate presidential approval research for the next ten years.
Since Mueller, 1973 (War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, John Wiley, New York), the study of Presidential popularity routinely designates certain historical events as “rallying” events, especially the onset of foreign conﬂicts. Subsequent scholarship explores the effect of additional signiﬁcant historical events (such as scandals or bad economic conditions) upon the President’s stock of approval. This paper argues that prior research has misconceptualized “rallies”, which refer to stable increases in approval of the president’s performance, not just a short-lived spike. Volatility is an important but mostly neglected aspect of presidential approval. This paper shows how the systematic causes of volatility can be examined. Volatility
increases across administrations and over time, primarily as a consequence of weakening partisan attachments. Volatility decreases during elections and after honeymoons, and presidentially relevant events vary in their effects on the mean level as well as on volatility. The results have signiﬁcant implications for the support of rational political actors in the legislature and for evidence of the rationality of public opinion.
Using congressional districts as primary sampling units, the 1978 National Elec- tion Survey provides improved (though still imperfect) measures of district opinion. To- gether with Census data on district demography, roll call voting scales, and information on congressmen’s party and personal characteristics, they permit a new examination of repre- sentation in Congress. Using these data we found a high degree of representation of district opinion on social welfare and (surprisingly) on women’s issues, nearly as much on racial issues, and much less on law and order or on abortion. District demography and congress- men’s party add substantially to the explanation of roll call votes. There is not, however, much “responsible party” representation in Congress. Future representation studies must face questions about the complex interplay among these factors, including reciprocal influences.