Gary C. Jacobson


On his book Presidents and Parties in the Public Mind

Cover Interview of March 20, 2019

In a nutshell

From analyses of thousands of commercial and academic public opinion surveys covering presidents from Truman to Trump, with results detailed in 54 tables and 93 figures, I argue that modern American presidents have had a profound and pervasive impact on how the public views their parties. Every president has shaped public attitudes toward his party and the other politicians in it; beliefs about who and what it stands for; assessments of how well it governs when in power; and its attractiveness as an object of personal identification. Insofar as the party label represents a brand name, the president bears prime responsibility for the brand’s current image and status.

Specifically, I find that:

One. Although existing partisan biases influence people’s feelings about prospective presidents as soon as they appear on the political scene, presidential candidates and presidents immediately begin to exert a reciprocal influence on how people feel about their parties that grows stronger as election day approaches, remains potent while they serve, and continues, though with diminished force, after they have departed.

Two. Evaluations of and feelings toward sitting presidents strongly and persistently influence how Americans evaluate and feel about their parties generally and about their party’s congressional wing and its leaders more specifically. Presidential influence on attitudes toward the party remains consistent across partisan subgroups (self-identified Republicans, Democrats and independents), administrations and survey question formats.

Three. Popular evaluations of the president’s performance generally and in specific domains have a direct effect on his party’s reputation for competence in dealing with national problems generally and in managing foreign relations, the economy, and several other issue domains.

Four. Presidents and presidential candidates shape and reshape public perceptions of their party’s position on policy issues. Although Americans have durable beliefs about where the parties stand on specific issues and their location on the general left-right dimension, they adjust their beliefs according to where they place the current president or presidential candidates.

Five. Popular assessments of the president’s performance influence both individual and mass partisanship both in the short and longer runs. The balance of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate varies with presidential approval ratings; such short run effects are usually reversible but have at times solidified into durable changes. Because party loyalties are most malleable early in political life, citizens newly entering the electorate contribute disproportionately to shifts in mass partisanship. A president’s most enduring influence is thus on the partisan identities of people who come of political age during his administration, and the extent of a president’s appeal—or lack thereof—to younger citizens has long-term implications for the future partisan composition of the electorate.

Six. Views of presidents and presidential candidates affect voters’ decisions in down-ballot races both directly and, through their effect on party images and party identification, indirectly, and thereby influence their party’s performance in congressional and other elections.

Seven. Presidents and presidential candidates have contributed importantly to the gradual realignment of the parties that has left the current American electorate more deeply divided along party lines than at any time in living memory.

Eight. Partisan polarization was essential to the election of Donald Trump. Although Trump executed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and continues to attract vigorous criticism from some of its luminaries, his impact during his first year in office on how people view his party has been at least as large as that of previous presidents. In the intra-party struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Republicans, Trump has so far emerged as the consistent winner. But given his unpopularity outside core Republican circles, and especially among growing segments of the population, Trump’s dominance and prospective rebranding of the Republican Party threatens to erode its popular image, reputation, and appeal both immediately and for the long term.