Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval

  • Kathleen Donovan
  • Paul M. Kellstedt
  • Ellen M. KeyEmail author
  • Matthew J. Lebo
Original Paper


Presidential approval is a desirable commodity for US presidents, one that bolsters re-election chances and the prospects of legislative success. An important question, then, is what shapes citizens’ approval of the executive. A large body of literature demonstrates that the president’s handling of issues, particularly the economy, is an important component. A similarly large literature confirms that evaluations of the president, like most political objects, are filtered through partisan lenses. Due to changes in the US political environment in the last few decades, we suspect that the relative importance of these components has changed over time. In particular, we argue that polarization has increased partisan motivated reasoning when it comes to evaluations of the president. We support this empirically by disaggregating approval ratings from Reagan to Obama into in- and out-partisans, finding that approval is increasingly detached from economic assessments. This is true for members opposite the president’s party earlier than it is for in-partisans. While the president has been over-attributed credit and blame for economic conditions, the increasing impact of partisanship on approval at the expense of economic sentiment has generally negative implications when it comes to electoral outcomes and democratic accountability.


Public opinion Presidential approval Motivated reasoning Polarization 



We would like to thank Amber Boydstun for helpful comments and A.M. for pushing us to find a suitable outlet for this manuscript. The data and replication code can be found at


  1. Abramowitz, A. (1985). Economic conditions, presidential popularity, and voting behavior in midterm congressional elections. Journal of Politics, 47, 31–43.Google Scholar
  2. Abramowitz, A., & Saunders, K. L. (2008). Is polarization a myth? Journal of Politics, 70, 542–555.Google Scholar
  3. Alesina, A., Londregan, J., & Rosenthal, H. (1993). A model of the political economy of the United States. The American Political Science Review, 87, 12–33.Google Scholar
  4. Althaus, S. L. (2003). Collective preferences in democratic politics: Opinion surveys and the will of the people. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Althaus, S. L., & Kim, Y. M. (2006). Priming effects in complex environments. Journal of Politics, 68, 960–976.Google Scholar
  6. Anderson, C. J. (2000). Economic voting and political context: A comparative perspective. Electoral Studies, 19, 151–170.Google Scholar
  7. Arcelus, F., & Meltzer, A. H. (1975). The effect of aggregate economic variables on congressional elections. American Political Science Review, 69, 1232–1239.Google Scholar
  8. Arceneaux, K., & Johnson, M. (2013). Changing minds or changing channels? Partisan news in an age of choice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  9. Baldassarri, D., & Gelman, A. (2008). Partisans without constraint: Political polarization and trends in American public opinion. American Journal of Sociology, 114, 408–446.Google Scholar
  10. Bartels, L. M. (2000). Partisanship and voting behavior, 1952–1996. American Journal of Political Science. Scholar
  11. Bartels, L. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24, 117–150.Google Scholar
  12. Baum, M., & Kernell, S. (2001). Economic class and popular support for Franklin Roosevelt in war and peace. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65, 198–229.Google Scholar
  13. Bisgaard, M. (2015). Bias will find a way: Economic perceptions, attributions of blame, and partisan-motivated reasoning during crisis. The Journal of Politics, 77, 849–860.Google Scholar
  14. Bond, J. R., Fleisher, R., & Dan Wood, B. (2003). The marginal and time-varying effect of public approval on presidential success in congress. Journal of Politics, 65, 92–110.Google Scholar
  15. Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., DeBoef, S., & Lin, T.-M. (2004). The dynamics of the partisan gender gap. American Political Science Review, 98, 515–528.Google Scholar
  16. Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., & Smith, R. M. (1996). The dynamics of aggregate partisanship. American Political Science Review, 90(3), 567–580.Google Scholar
  17. Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., & Tomlinson, A. R. (2000). Fractional integration methods in political science. Electoral Studies, 19, 63–76.Google Scholar
  18. Brody, R. A. (1991). Assessing the President: The media, elite opinion, and public support. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Bullock, J. G., Gerber, A. S., Hill, S. J., & Huber, G. A. (2015). Partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 10, 519–578.Google Scholar
  20. Campbell, J. E. (2016). The trial-heat and seats-in-trouble forecasts of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. Political Science and Politics, 49, 664–668.Google Scholar
  21. Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  22. Carey, S., & Lebo, M. J. (2006). Election cycles and the economic voter. Political Research Quarterly, 59, 543–556.Google Scholar
  23. Clarke, H. D., & Stewart, M. C. (1994). Prospections, retrospections and rationality: The ‘bankers’ model of presidential approval reconsidered. American Journal of Political Science, 38, 1104–1123.Google Scholar
  24. Clarke, H. D., & Stewart, M. C. (1995). Economic evaluations, prime ministerial approval and governing party support: Rival models reconsidered. British Journal of Political Science, 25, 145–170.Google Scholar
  25. Clarke, H. D., Stewart, M. C., Ault, M., & Elliott, E. (2005). Men, women and the dynamics of presidential approval. British Journal of Political Science, 35, 31–51.Google Scholar
  26. Cohen, J. E. (2002). The polls: Policy-specific presidential approval, part 2. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 32, 779–788.Google Scholar
  27. Cohen, J. E. (2004). Economic perceptions and executive approval in comparative perspective. Political Behavior, 26, 27–43.Google Scholar
  28. Conover, P. J., Feldman, S., & Knight, K. (1986). Judging inflation and unemployment: The origins of retrospective evaluations. Journal of Politics, 48, 565–588.Google Scholar
  29. Conover, P. J., Feldman, S., & Knight, K. (1987). The personal and political underpinnings of economic forecasts. American Journal of Political Science, 31, 559–583.Google Scholar
  30. De Boef, S., & Kellstedt, P. M. (2004). The political (and economic) origins of consumer confidence. American Journal of Political Science, 48, 633–649.Google Scholar
  31. Dickerson, B., & Ondercin, H. (2017). Conditional motivated reasoning: How the local economy moderates partisan motivations in economic perceptions. Political Research Quarterly, 70, 194–208.Google Scholar
  32. Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  33. Druckman, J. N. (2012). The politics of motivation. Critical Review, 24, 199–216.Google Scholar
  34. Druckman, J. N. (2014). Pathologies of studying public opinion, political communication, and democratic responsiveness. Political Communication, 31, 467–492.Google Scholar
  35. Druckman, J. N., Peterson, E., & Slothuus, R. (2013). How elite partisan polarization affects public opinion formation. American Political Science Review, 107, 57–79.Google Scholar
  36. Duch, R. M., Palmer, H. D., & Anderson, C. J. (2000). Heterogeneity in perceptions of national economic conditions. American Journal of Political Science, 44, 635–652.Google Scholar
  37. Durr, R. H., Gilmour, J. B., & Wolbrecht, C. (1997). Explaining congressional approval. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 175–207.Google Scholar
  38. Eichenberg, R. C., Stoll, R. J., & Lebo, M. J. (2006). War president: The approval ratings of George W. Bush. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50, 783–808.Google Scholar
  39. Enns, P. K., & Anderson, C. J. (2009). The American voter goes shopping: Micro-foundations of the partisan economy. In Paper prepared for delivery at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.Google Scholar
  40. Enns, P. K., & McAvoy, G. E. (2012). The role of partisanship in aggregate opinion. Political Behavior, 34, 1–25.Google Scholar
  41. Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2000). Bankers or peasants revisited: Economic expectations and presidential approval. Electoral Studies, 19, 295–312.Google Scholar
  42. Erikson, R. S., MacKuen, M. B., & Stimson, J. A. (2002). The macro polity. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Evans, G., & Pickup, M. (2010). Reversing the causal arrow: The political conditioning of economic perceptions in the 2000–2004 U.S. presidential election cycle. The Journal of Politics, 72, 1236–1251.Google Scholar
  44. Feaver, P. D., & Gelpi, C. (2004). Choosing Your Battles. In American civilmilitary relations and the use of force. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Fiorina, M. P. (1978). Economic retrospective voting in American national elections: A micro-analysis. American Journal of Political Science, 22, 426–443.Google Scholar
  46. Fiorina, M. P. (1981). Retrospective voting in American national elections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Fiorina, M. P., & Abrams, S. A. (2009). Disconnect: The breakdown of representation in American politics. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.Google Scholar
  48. Gelpi, C., Reifler, J., & Feaver, P. (2007). Iraq the vote: Retrospective and prospective foreign policy judgments on candidate choice and casualty tolerance. Political Behavior, 29, 151–174.Google Scholar
  49. Gerber, A. S., & Huber, G. A. (2009). Partisanship and economic behavior: Do partisan differences in economic forecasts predict real economic behavior? American Political Science Review, 103, 407–426.Google Scholar
  50. Gerber, A. S., & Huber, G. A. (2010). Partisanship, political control, and economic assessments. American Journal of Political Science, 54, 153–173.Google Scholar
  51. Goodhart, C. A. E., & Bhansali, R. J. (1970). Political economy. Political Studies, 18, 43–106.Google Scholar
  52. Hetherington, M. J. (2001). Resurgent mass partisanship: The role of elite polarization. American Political Science Review, 95, 619–632.Google Scholar
  53. Hetherington, M. J., & Rudolph, T. J. (2015). Why Washington won’t work: Polarization, political trust, and the governing crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  54. Hibbs, D. A. (1979). The mass public and macroeconomic performance: The dynamics of public opinion toward unemployment and inflation. American Journal of Political Science, 23, 705–731.Google Scholar
  55. Hollander, B. A. (2008). Tuning out or tuning elsewhere? Partisanship, polarization, and media migration from 1998 to 2006. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 85, 23–40.Google Scholar
  56. Hurwitz, J., & Peffley, M. (1987). How are foreign policy attitudes structured? A hierarchical model. The American Political Science Review, 81, 1099–1120.Google Scholar
  57. Iyengar, S., & Hahn, K. S. (2009). Red media, blue media: Evidence of ideological selectivity in media use. Journal of Communication, 59, 19–39.Google Scholar
  58. Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N., & Westwood, S. J. (2019). The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science. Scholar
  59. Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59, 690–707.Google Scholar
  60. Jerit, J., & Barabas, J. (2012). Partisan perceptual bias and the information environment. The Journal of Politics, 74, 672–684.Google Scholar
  61. Kagay, M. R. (1999). Presidential address: Public opinion and polling during presidential scandal and impeachment. Public Opinion Quarterly, 63, 449–463.Google Scholar
  62. Kellstedt, P. M., Linn, S., & Lee Hannah, A. (2015). The usefulness of consumer sentiment: Assessing construct and measurement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 79, 181–203.Google Scholar
  63. Kernell, S. (1978). Explaining presidential popularity. American Political Science Review, 72, 506–522.Google Scholar
  64. Key, E. M., & Donovan, K. M. (2017). The political economy: Political determinants of the macroeconomy. Political Behavior, 39, 763–786.Google Scholar
  65. Kim, S., Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2012). A computational model of the citizen as motivated reasoned: Modeling the dynamics of the 2000 presidential election. Political Behavior, 31, 1–28.Google Scholar
  66. Kinder, D. R., & Roderick Kiewiet, D. (1981). Sociotropic politics: The American case. British Journal of Political Science, 11, 129–162.Google Scholar
  67. Koyck, L. M. (1954). Distributed lags and investment analysis (4th ed.). Amsterdam: North-Holland.Google Scholar
  68. Kramer, G. H. (1971). Short-term fluctuations in U.S. voting behavior, 1896–1964. The American Political Science Review, 65, 131–143.Google Scholar
  69. Kramer, G. H. (1983). The ecological fallacy revisited: Aggregate versus individual level findings on economics and elections and sociotropic voting. American Political Science Review, 77, 92–111.Google Scholar
  70. Kriner, D. (2006). Examining variance in presidential approval: The case of FDR in World War II. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70, 23–47.Google Scholar
  71. Kruase, G. A., & Granato, J. (1998). Fooling some of the public some of the time? A test for weak rationality with heterogenous information levels. Public Opinion Quarterly, 62, 135–151.Google Scholar
  72. Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). The psychology of being ‘right’: The problem of accuracy in social perception and cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 395–409.Google Scholar
  73. Kuklinski, J., & West, D. (1981). Economic expectations and voting behavior in United States House and Senate elections. American Political Science Review, 75, 436–447.Google Scholar
  74. Lanoue, D. J. (1994). Retrospective and prospective voting in presidential-year elections. Political Research Quarterly, 47, 193–205.Google Scholar
  75. Lavine, H. G., Johnston, C. D., & Steenbergen, M. R. (2012). The ambivalent partisan: How critical loyalty promotes democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  76. Layman, G. C., & Carsey, T. M. (2002). Party polarization and ‘conflict extension’ in the American electorate. American Journal of Political Science, 46, 786–802.Google Scholar
  77. Lebo, M. J., & Box-Steffensmeier, J. M. (2008). Dynamic conditional correlations in political science. American Journal of Political Science, 52, 688–704.Google Scholar
  78. Lebo, M. J., & Cassino, D. (2007). The aggregated consequences of motivated reasoning and the dynamics of partisan presidential approval. Political Psychology, 28, 719–746.Google Scholar
  79. Lebo, M. J., & Grant, T. (2016). Equation balance and dynamic political modeling. Political Analysis, 24(1), 69–82.Google Scholar
  80. Lebo, M. J., Walker, R. W., & Clarke, H. D. (2000). You must remember this: Dealing with long memory in political analyses. Electoral Studies, 19(1), 31–48.Google Scholar
  81. Leeper, T. J., & Slothuus, R. (2014). Political parties, motivated reasoning, and public opinion formation. Political Psychology, 35, 129–156.Google Scholar
  82. Levendusky, M. S. (2009). The microfoundations of mass polarization. Political Analysis, 17, 162–176.Google Scholar
  83. Lewis-Beck, M. S., & Stegmaier, M. (2007). Economic models of voting. In The Oxford handbook of political behavior.
  84. Lockerbie, B. (1991). Prospective economic voting in U.S. House elections, 1956–88. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 16, 239–261.Google Scholar
  85. Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2005). The automaticity of affect for political leaders, groups, and issues: An experimental test of the hot cognition hypothesis. Political Psychology, 26, 455–482.Google Scholar
  86. MacKuen, M. B. (1983). Political drama, economic conditions, and the dynamics of presidential popularity. American Journal of Political Science, 27, 165–192.Google Scholar
  87. MacKuen, M. B., Erikson, R. S., & Stimson, J. A. (1992). Peasants or bankers: The American electorate and the U.S. economy. American Political Science Review, 86, 597–611.Google Scholar
  88. MacKuen, M. B., Erikson, R. S., & Stimson, J. A. (1996). Comment. Journal of Politics, 58, 793–801.Google Scholar
  89. Mason, L. (2015). ‘I disrespectfully agree’: The differential effects of partisan sorting on social and issue polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59, 128–145.Google Scholar
  90. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  91. Mueller, J. (1970). Presidential popularity from Truman to Johnson. American Political Science Review, 65, 18–34.Google Scholar
  92. Mueller, J. (1973). War, presidents and public opinion. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  93. Nannestad, P., & Paldam, M. (2000). Into Pandora’s Box of economic evaluations: A study of the Danish macro VP-function, 1986–1997. Electoral Studies, 19, 123–140.Google Scholar
  94. Newman, B. (2002). Bill Clinton’s approval ratings: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Political Research Quarterly, 55, 781–804.Google Scholar
  95. Newman, B., & Forcehimes, A. (2010). ‘Rally round the flag’ events for presidential approval research. Electoral Studies, 29, 144–154.Google Scholar
  96. Nickelsburg, M., & Norpoth, H. (2000). Commander-in-chief or chief economist? The president in the eye of the public. Electoral Studies, 19, 313–332.Google Scholar
  97. Norpoth, H. (1996). Presidents and the prospective voter. Journal of Politics, 58, 776–792.Google Scholar
  98. Ostrom, C. W., Jr., & Simon, D. M. (1985). Promise and performance: A dynamic model of presidential popularity. American Political Science Review, 79, 334–358.Google Scholar
  99. Ostrom, C. W., Jr., & Simon, D. M. (1988). The man in the Teflon suit? The environmental connection, political drama, and popular support in the Reagan presidency. Public Opinion Quarterly, 53, 353–387.Google Scholar
  100. Page, B. I., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1992). The rational public: Fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  101. Parker-Stephen, E. (2013). Tides of disagreement: How reality facilitates (and inhibits) partisan public opinion. Journal of Politics, 75, 1077–1088.Google Scholar
  102. Pew Research Center. (2018). Wide gender gap, growing educational divide in voters’ party identification.
  103. Pickup, M., & Kellstedt, P. M. (2018). Equation balance in time series analysis: What it is and how to apply it. Working paper.Google Scholar
  104. Prior, M. (2013). Media and political polarization. Annual Review of Political Science, 16, 101–127.Google Scholar
  105. Rogowski, J. C., & Sutherland, J. L. (2016). How ideology fuels affective polarization. Political Behavior, 38(2), 485–508.Google Scholar
  106. Sears, D. O., & Funk, C. L. (1991). The role of self-interest in social and political attitudes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 1–91.Google Scholar
  107. Slothuus, R., & De Vreese, C. H. (2010). Political parties, motivated reasoning, and issue framing effects. The Journal of Politics, 72, 630–645.Google Scholar
  108. Stanig, P. (2013). Political polarization in retrospective economic evaluations during recessions and recoveries. Electoral Studies, 32, 729–745.Google Scholar
  109. Stimson, J. A. (2004). Tides of consent: How public opinion shapes American politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  110. Taber, C. S., Cann, D., & Kucsova, S. (2009). The motivated processing of political arguments. Political Behavior, 31, 137–155.Google Scholar
  111. Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50, 755–769.Google Scholar
  112. Welch, S., & Hibbing, J. (1992). Financial conditions, gender, and voting in American National Elections. Journal of Politics, 54, 197–213.Google Scholar
  113. Zaller, J. R. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  114. Zaller, J. R. (1998). Monica Lewinsky’s contribution to political science. Politics and Political Science, 31, 182–189.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St. John Fisher CollegeRochesterUSA
  2. 2.Texas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  3. 3.Appalachian State UniversityBooneUSA
  4. 4.Stony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

Personalised recommendations