Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 206–222 | Cite as

Salience and approval in transatlantic perspective

  • Henrike ViehrigEmail author


This paper focuses on issue salience and the approval of specific foreign policies and asks whether shifts in public attention are linked to specific political attitudes concerning the use of military force. It examines the role of salience of foreign affairs in the USA and Germany and links the cognitive dimension (what is important) with the attitudinal dimension (what is your opinion on a specific issue). Although the two countries differ in foreign policy style and military involvement, their publics tend to disapprove of military interventions when they perceive them as the country’s most important problem. In times of high overall salience, however, public judgement tends to be less negative because event-induced peaks in salience work according to a different logic than problem-induced salience.


public opinion foreign policy issue salience military intervention Germany USA 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Kai Oppermann and Henrike Viehrig, ‘The Public Salience of Foreign and Security Policy in Britain, Germany and France’, West European Politic 32, no. 5 (2009): 925–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    David H. Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion: Are There Consequences of Agenda-Setting?’, International Journal of Public Opinion Research 3, no. 1 (1991): 53–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: University Press, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw, ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media’, Public Opinion Quarterly 36, no. 2 (1972): 176–87; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 4a.
    David H. Weaver, Media Agenda-Setting in a Presidential Election: Issues, Images, and Interest (New York, NY: Praeger, 1981).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Philip P. Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent: Issue Salience and Support for the Use of Military Force’, in Issue Salience in International Politics, ed. Kai Oppermann and Henrike Viehrig (London: Routledge, 2011), 39–53; and Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion’.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Kai Oppermann and Alexander Spencer, ‘Thinking Alike? Salience and Metaphor Analysis as Cognitive Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis’, Foreign Policy Analysis 9, no. 1 (2013): 39–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 7.
    Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’; and Jörg Jacobs, ‘Issue Salience, Political Affiliation and the Use of Force: Germany in Comparative Perspective’, in Issue Salience in International Politics, ed. Kai Oppermann and Henrike Viehrig (London: Routledge, 2011), 54–64.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    The comparative Transatlantic Trends Study annually polls a very broad spectrum of foreign and security policy in 14 countries; cf. Transatlantic Trends, ‘About the Survey’, Transatlantic Trends, (accessed July 4, 2012). The survey’s initial question asks for political interest and the respondent’s willingness to convince other people in political discussions, thus inquiring about the general political interest but avoiding asking for specific foreign policy awareness. When the scores from these questions are correlated with attitudes and opinions on foreign policy issues, they yield no clear relationship between levels of political interest and levels of approval; cf. Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’; and Jacobs, ‘Issue Salience’.
  10. 9.
    Harald Schoen, ‘Two Indicators, One Conclusion: On the Public Salience of Foreign Affairs in Germany Before and After Reunification’, in Issue Salience in International Politics, ed. Kai Oppermann and Henrike Viehrig (London: Routledge, 2011), 23–38Google Scholar
  11. 9a.
    Stuart N. Soroka, ‘Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy’, The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8, no. 1 (2003): 27–48; Oppermann and Viehrig, ‘Public Salience’; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 9b.
    Hans Rattinger and Petra Heinlein, Sicherheitspolitik in der öffentlichen Meinung: Umfrageergebnisse für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland bis zum ‘heißen Herbst 1983’ [Security Policy in Public Opinion: Survey Results for the Federal Republic of Germany until the ‘hot autumn 1983’] (Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Autoren-Verlag, 1986).Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’; Sophie Lecheler, Claes de Vreese, and Rune Slothuus, ‘Issue Importance as a Moderator of Framing Effects’, Communication Research 36, no. 3 (2009): 400–25; and Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 11.
    A middle course between the second and the third way is the German Bundestag survey. Here, members of parliament are asked what foreign policy issue they consider to be the most important. This is a viable alternative to channel the area of inquiry but giving the respondents enough leeway to name their personal top-of-the-head issue; cf. Thomas Jäger et al., ‘The Salience of Foreign Affairs Issues in the German Bundestag’, Parliamentary Affairs 62, no. 3 (2009): 418–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 12.
    Lecheler, de Vreese, and Slothuus, ‘Issue Importance’, 404. The authors refer to ‘object salience’.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Cit. in: Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion’, 55.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Iyengar and Simon called this phenomenon ‘priming’, but their analysis is restricted to measuring the approval of candidates that run for office and does not cover attitude formation on a specific issue; cf. Shanto Iyengar and Adam Simon, ‘News Coverage of the Gulf Crisis and Public Opinion: A Study of Agenda-Setting, Priming, and Framing’, Communication Research 20, no. 3 (1993): 365–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 15.
    Scott L. Althaus and Kevin Coe, ‘Social Identity Processes and the Dynamics of Public Support for War’, The Public Opinion Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2011): 65–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 16.
    Soroka, ‘Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy’; and Oppermann and Viehrig, ‘Public Salience’.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Kristin Bulkow, Juliane Urban, and Wolfgang Schweiger, ‘The Duality of Agenda-Setting. The Role of Information Processing’, International Journal of Public Opinion Research 25, no. 1 (2013): 43–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 18.
    Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’; and Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion’.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Zaller, Nature and Origins.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    For Germany see: Regina Karp, ‘The New German Foreign Policy Consensus’, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2005): 61–82; for the USA seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 20a.
    Richard A. Melanson, American Foreign Policy Since the Vietnam War: The Search for Consensus from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. 4th ed. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005).Google Scholar
  25. 21.
    Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’, 44–9; and Schoen, ‘Two Indicators’.Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    Althaus and Coe, ‘Social Identity Processes’; and Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’, 49–51.Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    Yet, recent literature about the effects of asking for the most important problem explains how the question mingles two dimensions: that of ‘importance’ and that of describing a ‘problem’. Christopher Wlezien shows that when responding to the most important-problem question, people are more likely to be driven by the problem status of the issue in question than by its overall importance: ‘An issue is a problem if we are not getting the policy we want’ (Christopher Wlezien, ‘On the Salience of Political Issues: The Problem with “Most Important Problem”’, Electoral Studies 24, no. 4 (2005): 555–79, 559). An often proposed alternative — the use of the question for the most important issue and thus avoiding that responses reflect only the problem status of an issue — does not seem to alleviate the problem, as a comparative study about ‘issue’ and ‘problem’ questions in the United Kingdom revealed (CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 23a.
    Will Jennings and Christopher Wlezien, ‘Distinguishing Between Most Important Problems and Issues?’, Public Opinion Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2011): 545–55). In fact, one of the arguments against the most important issue question is precisely that its answers reflect the problem status instead of the significance of a political issue. Both questions, then, capture a certain degree of public attentiveness to political issues, which in turn is affected by the issue’s problem character more than by its intrinsic importance. Insofar, changing my methodology towards the most important-issue question presumably would not change the core findings.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 24.
    Soroka, ‘Media, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy’.Google Scholar
  30. 25.
    Taking into account that German data include the share of respondents that name foreign policy as their first or their second most important problem, and that US data only note the very respondents’ first answer, the difference of priorities becomes even more pronounced.Google Scholar
  31. 26.
    Gary C. Jacobson, ‘Referendum: The 2006 Midterm Congressional Elections’, Political Science Quarterly 122, no. 1 (2007): 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 27.
    David L. Eckles and Brian F. Schaffner, ‘Risk Tolerance and Support for Potential Military Interventions’, Public Opinion Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2011): 533–44; For analytical purposes, I did not include the fact whether Germany participates in the particular mission or not, since pollsters tend to cover only those deployments that Germany takes part in, or in which participation could become likely.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 28.
    A Mann-Whitney-U test showed that approval for Bush’s foreign policy among the low salience group (mean 43.4) differs significantly from the approval among the high salience group (mean 39.2), U = 64,661,947.5; Z = −3.929; p = 0.000; and r = −0.026 indicate a minimal effect size that is highly significant (N = 23,725).Google Scholar
  34. 29.
    Matthew A. Baum and Philip B. Potter, ‘The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis’, Annual Review of Political Science 11, no. 1 (2008): 39–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 30.
    John E. Mueller, War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (New York, NY: Wiley, 1973).Google Scholar
  36. 31.
    Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999); andGoogle Scholar
  37. 31a.
    Birgitta Höijer, ‘The Discourse of global Compassion. The Audience and Media Reporting of Human Suffering’, Media, Culture & Society 26, no. 4 (2004): 513–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 32.
    Marc J. Hetherington and Michael Nelson, ‘Anatomy of a Rally Effect: George W. Bush and the War on Terrorism’, PS: Political Science & Politics 36, no. 1 (2003): 37–42.Google Scholar
  39. 33.
    The Mann–Whitney U test results are: U = 40,182,588.0; Z = −14.581; p = 0.000; and r = −0.08, which indicates a minimal effect size that is highly significant (N = 33,415).Google Scholar
  40. 34.
    The Mann–Whitney U test indicates a minimal effect size (r = −0.04) that is highly significant (p = 0.000; with N = 61,257; U = 155,532,190.5; and Z = −8.597).Google Scholar
  41. 35.
    The number of cases is determined through the number of approval questions in the Politbarometer 1999–2010.Google Scholar
  42. 36.
    Mann–Whitney U test results: r = −0.02; p = 0.004 with N = 29,480; U = 69,688,027; and Z = −2.901.Google Scholar
  43. 37.
    The party changed its name into ‘Die Linke’ (‘The Left’) in 2007.Google Scholar
  44. 38.
    Torsten Oppelland, ‘Parteien’ [‘Parties’], in Handbuch zur deutschen Außenpolitik [Handbook on German foreign policy], ed. Siegmar Schmidt, Gunther Hellmann, and Reinhard Wolf, 1st ed. (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2007), 269–79, 273–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 39.
    Lecheler, de Vrees, and Slothuus, ‘Issue Importance’, 403–4; and Julia R. Zuwerink and Patricia G. Devine, ‘Attitude Importance and Resistance to Persuasion: It’s Not Just the Thought that Counts’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70, no. 5 (1996): 931–944.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 40.
    Marc J. Hetherington, ‘Review Article: Putting Polarization in Perspective’, British Journal of Political Science 39, no. 2 (2009): 413–48, 437.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 41.
    Everts, ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’; and Weaver, ‘Issue Salience and Public Opinion’.Google Scholar
  48. 42.
    CBS News/NYT Poll (2011), Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR),]jsp (accessed May 24, 2012)Google Scholar
  49. 42a.
    Gallup Brain, ‘Most Important Problem’, Gallup Brain (accessed September 10, 2003); Politbarometer (1999–2010), GESIS, (accessed May 24, 2012).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of English, American, and Celtic StudiesUniversity of BonnBonnGermany

Personalised recommendations