How do voters evaluate a White House (and nation) in chaos?
Much happened in US politics this week. as always. The stock market again embarked on a sharp downward trend because of uncertainty regarding the ongoing trade war with China. Whose fault is it? (To which President Trump respond “I am Tariff Man
.”) Will the situation grow more dire? Uncertainty, after all, very often has stark negative consequences for the markets.
Back on earth, the President appears to be circling the drain as Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia-Trump collusion approaches critical mass. “Individual one
,” which is by all accounts a codename for Donald Trump, looks to be in quite a bit of potential trouble with the law. In the penumbras of the Special Counsel’s indictments so far, that trouble has become
even more clear—so clear that we may already know much of what Mueller’s eventual report will tell us.
Then, there was the “resignation” of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who some said early on would provide a check on President Trump. Whether that ended up being true is up in the air. With Kelly set to leave before the year is up and current interim chief and VP Pence CoS Nick Ayers likely to replace
Kelly, it’s clear that there could be soon be an exacerbating force in the White House, instead of a perhaps mildly restraining one. Ayers will “focus the West Wing almost entirely on the president’s reelection effort,” a White House aide said to
POLITICO. A former staffer said “you’re going to have a White House that’s all politics all the time.” If there’s one thing we know about the White House, it’s that they haven’t played that political game very well.
All three of these major events have on thing in common: chaos, or maybe in the case of the markets, possible chaos. This brings me to our question this week: How do voters evaluate a White House, and nation, in chaos? I include both subjects as it seems commons sense that the two are tied; given the power of the office and the inherent national nature of the federal government, the state of the nation is implicitly used as a standard for judgements passed on the president.
Historically, how a president manages unmanageable situations is a good benchmark of his (and it is "his”) success. The great presidents, a colleague said to me this week, were all tested. George Washington built the Union against all odds. Lincoln held the ship of state together when all signs pointed to an impossible penetrated hull.. Franklin Roosevelt, doing what the captain of the Titanic
could not, navigated a field of ice that promised its demise. Do voters decide how well a president is doing by grading theme according to these great tests? (Separately, are elections even an efficient means to hold politicians accountable
There’s at least one area of crisis for which we have much evidence on the evaluation of the White House: the national economy. George W Bush gets blamed for the 2008 “great recession,” for example, while Barack Obama gets credited for its recovery. (In fact, Bush’s nomination of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had much to do with halting the nation’s downward spiral and its initial recovery, and we must also give much credit to Obama for the apparent success of the 2009 stimulus. The point is that the reality of political economy is much more complex than the generalizations voters make when attributing credit and blame, and thus some of the generalizations underlying the theory of the research. I digress…)
Unsurprisingly, the political impacts of a poor economy have been an area of serious inquiry for political scientists for decades. The overarching conclusions reached by scholars of voter behavior are that (a) voters evaluate the economy in a sociotropic
fashion— that is, by placing more weight on the overall condition of the economy than on their own financial conditions; and (b) that voters are retrospective
in their evaluations—that is, they evaluate how the economy has performed in recent memory rather than attempting to predict how it will perform in the future (which requires much more cognition on the part of the public, which isn’t very good at making such predictions). I draw much of these suggestions from Donald Kinder and Roderick Kiewiet’s “Sociotropic Politics; The American Case” (1981
) and Morris Fiorina’s “Economic Retrospective Voting in American National Elections: A Micro-Analysis” (1978
Importantly, there is a shortcoming in this quick analysis thus far. What is the link between what we’re observing and what we’re assessing? That is, how
is it that voters come about their perceptions of the economy? Marc Hetherington offers advice in his article “The Media’s Role in Forming Voters’ National Economic Evaluations in 1992” (1996
). Hetherington writes that voters punished George HW Bush at the polls due to the information they received from media sources about the dubious state of the economy, despite that the economy was performing rather admirably by certain measures. “Perceptions of the economy tainted by relentlessly negative reporting of its condition” had significant, unpredictable impacts on the election, Hetherington writes, blaming the mismatch between an array of forecast Bush victories as the actual Clinton victory on this “relentlessly negative” reporting.
This is to say that our evaluation of Trump’s presidency, at least based on economic conditions, will be determined by (1) the actual health of the economy and (2) how it is portrayed by the media.
By this criteria, he is likely not in good shape; the stock market has erased all of its gains over the past year and change, and negative media coverage of that slide could make his problems even worse. To be sure, the state of the economy is not entirely conveyed by a slowing stock market, but other leading economic indicators
have also showed sings of trouble. Just like in the midterm elections, and with presidential approval ratings thus far, a good economy probably won’t increase the president’s odds of political good fortune — so long as Trump, in short, remains Trumpian. If a backslide is on the horizon, it will likely have negative consequences too.
The rest of the chaos
I’ve left much of the original question unanswered, haven’t I? How will the country evaluate a president in legal trouble, or who is focusing al, of his efforts on politics rather than governing?
To be sure, there’s not much evidence to evaluate a hypothesis that goes either direction. It’s my strong prior that the actual revelations of charges of presidential collusion with Russia will have a negative impact on the president. Simply stated, how could that possibly improve his image? Further, since the “impeachable offenses” of president Nixon and Clinton were largely their direction to the West Wing to lie on their behalf — which Trump already appears
to have done. But from a scientific perspective, we’re kind of in uncharted waters here.
I feel the same way about theories that voters will punish a White House that focuses on politicking rather than policy. How much (normatively) good domestic and foreign policy can the Trump Administration push if their chief officers is on the campaign trail 4 nights a week, as he had done for much of the 2018 campaign? In 2020, will voters opt for someone who shows more desire to yield power, rather than simply win it? I see a lot of downside for the president, in sum, and not much upside.
Ultimately, to the question of how voters evaluate a White House and nation in chaos, the obvious answer is “negatively” — and the researched answer is likely not too far off that mark.