Voters' Job Approval Ratings and State Legislator Perceptions of Gubernatorial Influence.

Author:Cohen, Jeffrey E.

In his seminal study, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt argues that the president's prestige with the public should affect his influence in Congress. (1) Voters' job approval ratings are frequently used as a measure of public prestige. The underlying logic behind this idea is that legislators care about being re-elected. Thus, they will vote in favor of popular presidents' legislative proposals, fearing that constituents will vote against them in upcoming elections if they oppose the legislative proposals of popular presidents.

Neustadt's idea linking job approval with legislative success has spawned a massive literature. Despite the intuitive appeal of this hypothesis, results have been mixed with some studies finding support, (2) while others find no relationship between approval and legislative success, or at best a modest one. (3) In contrast to the volume of such research at the presidential level, there are few studies of whether the approval of U. S. state governors affects their legislative success.

It is important to apply theories and hypotheses about the president and Congress to state level. Both levels of government use separation of power systems, which facilitates comparison. Also, there are often important political, social, and economic variations at the state level, which allows us to test whether patterns and relationships found at the national level hold under these varying conditions. For such reasons, states are considered useful laboratories for testing hypotheses and ideas generated at the national level. (4) To date, however, there are only four works that test whether voter job approval ratings of governors affects their legislative success and only two of those studies have been published. (5) Like with the presidency literature, findings are mixed.

The existing research on this question generally uses some form of legislative floor voting for measuring presidential or gubernatorial success, such as whether their position won a roll call vote or the legislature enacted the president's or governor's proposal. Floor vote measures of success are limited in several regards. First, executives may be strategic in deciding to take positions on roll calls and in submitting proposals to the legislature. For instance, they may be more inclined to take positions and or make proposals when the likelihood of success is high, and refrain from doing so when they expect to be defeated. (6) A second source of bias in using floor votes to measure success is that many executive proposals do not reach the floor for a vote. They may be killed in committee, ignored, or fail to reach the floor because of insufficient time in the legislative session to deal with all executive proposals. (7) Floor votes on executive positions and proposals constitute a biased subset of all executive preferences on public policy.

This paper extends past research in two ways. First, it adds to the meager literature on gubernatorial job approval ratings and legislative influence. Second, rather than the use of floor votes as measures of success, this study looks at legislators' perceptions of gubernatorial influence. Despite some limitations of a perceptual measure of influence, it avoids some of the problems of selection bias and strategic behavior noted above.

The question of approval's effect on legislative behavior is important for several reasons. The topic raises the question of representation. If governors are considered representatives of the people, are legislators responsive to the public's approval for their governor? If legislatures do not respond to the proposals of popular governors, the quality of representation may be degraded. Second, the question of approval and success reflects on the role of the executive in the policymaking process. Executives are expected to play a large part in policymaking, especially in the legislative arena. Yet the separation of powers hampers them from doing so, impelling them to develop and harness political resources, such as public support, to further their policy goals. However, if approval, one form of voter support for presidents and governors, does not affect legislative support, then one supposedly important source of influence is not available to them, and suggests that presidents and governors may be wasting their time trying to cultivate high job approval ratings as a legislative resource.

This paper proceeds as follows. The next section develops the electoral connection theory, followed by a review and critique of the literature on gubernatorial approval and legislative success. Then the data are introduced, followed by the analysis. Previewing the results, approval affects perceptions of gubernatorial influence in the lower, but not the upper, legislative chamber, when controlling for other factors that affect legislator perceptions of gubernatorial influence. The conclusion speculates about the difference in responsiveness of the lower and upper chambers, discusses the importance of the findings and offers suggestions for future research.

The Electoral Connection, Job Approval Ratings, and Legislative Success

The legislator's desire for reelection is often cited as a linkage mechanism from voter job approval ratings to presidential and gubernatorial success on roll call votes. (8) The reelection motivation provides an incentive for legislators to take into account their constituents' preferences when casting roll calls. Legislators are concerned especially with the effects of their roll call votes on reelection chances in subsequent elections, which means that they try to predict the future electoral consequences of current roll call behavior. Predicting the future, however, is fraught with uncertainty because unanticipated events may occur, which may alter the political landscape, the policy agenda, and or the opinions of voters.

Given this uncertainty, legislators look for information that may help them predict their constituents' future electoral behavior. General political attitudes, such as partisanship and ideological leanings, may be relatively good predictors as they tend to be stable in the short to medium term. Job approval ratings of the president or governor may also provide legislators with relevant information regarding the future voting behavior of constituents. (9)

Several attributes of job approval ratings--whether they are of the president or state governor--make them a useful predictor of future constituent electoral behavior. Presidents and governors are highly visible. Nearly every voter can identify the president and the governor, and has some basic knowledge of them. (10) With regard to governors, in the 2006 Cooperate Congressional Election Survey, 86 percent of respondents could identify the party of the governor. (11) In contrast, comparable knowledge about state legislators is rare among voters. There is little direct evidence on this point, but several studies suggest that there is little news coverage of state politics, which is necessary for voters to learn about state legislators. (12) For instance, state legislative elections receive little news coverage.

Therefore, attitudes toward governors determine orientations to state legislatures. In their study of state legislative approval, E. Richardson, David Konisky, and Jeffrey Milyo find that approval of governors has a strong effect on the approval of state legislatures. (13) At the national level, there is evidence that attitudes towards the president affect congressional voting behavior and election outcomes. For instance, Paul Gronke, Jeffrey Koch, and James Wilson find that voters are more likely to cast ballots in congressional races for presidential co-partisans when they approve than when they disapprove of the president, and Brandice Canes-Wrone, David Brady, and John Cogan show that members of Congress do less well in elections if they supported an unpopular president. (14)

Still, there are important differences between members of Congress and state legislators that might uncouple the linkage between gubernatorial approval and success in the state legislature. First, and most important, the electoral connection between state legislators and their constituents appears quite weak. For the electoral connection to operate, members must want to be reelected and to develop a political career. From the data used in this study, a 1995 survey of state legislators, large percentages are somewhat uncertain that they will run for reelection. Of state representatives, only 39 percent report that they will definitely run for reelection, with another 44 percent that say they probably will. The figures for senators are similar with 46 percent that say they definitely will run for reelection and 42 percent that say they probably will. Thus, while these state politicians lean towards running for reelection, a large fraction is uncertain.

Moreover, state legislators tend to win reelection easily. As Steven Rogers reports, about one-third of state legislators run for reelection unopposed. (15) In the data used in this study, state representatives report receiving on average 70 percent of the general election vote, while state senators do nearly as well at 67 percent. Furthermore, the election connection theory suggests that legislators must feel that their roll call behavior, such as support or opposition to the governor, will affect their reelection odds. This appears to be the case for members of Congress, but it does not appear to be so for state legislators. Although we lack evidence linking support and or opposition to the governor and state legislative elections, Rogers also reports in a second study that the roll call behavior of state legislators has no impact on their reelection performance. (16) If legislators have little to fear from voters then whether the governor is popular or not might not matter to them when deciding on the governor's policy proposals and positions...

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