The Effect of Divided Government on the Rally-Round-the-Flag Phenomenon

The Effect of Divided Government on the Rally-Round-the-Flag Phenomenon

Nicole Dambra PSC412 Professor Johnson April 29, 2010 Abstract: The concept that public approval of the President increases during times of international crisis is known as the Rally around the Flag phenomenon. Divided government lessens the President’s accountability, by allowing the president to pass blame to the majority party in the legislative branch. The President attains higher levels of approval from rallies during divided government due to three factors. First, there are higher levels of opposition party criticisms prior to a crisis.

Secondly, media outlets disproportionably cover opposition party elites statements supporting he President. Lastly, opposition party statements in support of the President are a very powerful influence on the public. Public approval is important because it increases the power of the President in many aspects of the political arena. Presidential public approval plays a role in members of the president’s party being elected into opening congressional seats (Marra and Ostrom 1989).

Presidential popularity has also been linked to the successful policy initiation from the president (Rivers and Rose 1985), and less reversed presidential vetoes (Rohde and Simon 1985). Popular presidents have more persuasive power mongst members of Congress, “and are more likely to present bold and ambitious legislative packages to Congress” (Baker and Oneal). Popular Presidents have more options and freedom to enact their political agendas with less resistance from Congress (Baker and Oneal).

Since public approval is so valuable to the President, the rally-around-the-flag phenomenon is worthy of further research. The notion that a president can elicit a surge of patriotism and public approval for his administration and its policies during an international crisis is known as the “rally around the flag” effect (Mueller 1970). This phenomenon was supported by empirical research (Kernell 1978; Mueller 1970). More recent studies have cast doubt on some aspects of the rally effect (Brody 1991).

The political aspects that explain the origin of the rally-around-the-flag phenomenon lead me to question if periods of divided government effect the size of a rally. Previous Literature There are three prevailing schools of thought that explain Presidential Approval Ratings. The first is that Presidential Approval will inevitably decrease throughout the term. Presidential approval is not a constant decrease, so this theory does not ompletely explain approval trends. The second school of thought claims that presidents are constantly evaluated on their abilities to fulfill the expectations of the electorate.

Public approval fluctuates in response to inflation and rates of unemployment, battle deaths during periods of war, levels of international tension, and the success of the president’s legislative agenda. This theory expects the electorate to be sophisticated and informed, which is not the case. The third is the President will do anything to prevent the decay of public approval. This theory is here the “rally around the flag” phenomenon plays an important role. There are two approaches to explaining the cause of a rally, patriotism and opinion leadership.

The Patriotism Model claims that in times of foreign crisis, the public will unconditionally support the president. The fact is that there are many examples of public reaction such as individual rally events, threats, demonstrations, or use of force which do not routinely result in a boost of the president’s popularity. If the cause of a rally is intensified sense of patriotism, “events that most gravely threaten he nation’s political, economic and strategic interests will be the most likely to induce a rally.

However, higher levels of hostility have only limited effects on the size of the rally in presidential popularity’ (Baker and Oneal). When the United States is engaged in a militarized disputes for a prolonged period of time, the presidential approval decreases. This could be evidence of public fear of a successful exit or that the US is overstretching itself. This decrease in public approval does indicate that support is not blind, and the fact that militarized disputes with cold war rivals did not roduce significant rallies sheds further doubt on the patriotism hypothesis (Baker and Oneal).

The Opinion Leadership Model states that the political environment in which international crises develop often prohibits the public from access to traditional sources of information which are available during normal periods. This inability to access pertinent information is generally the cause of the rally; it creates a barrier in making political Judgment by leaving out a piece of the puzzle per say. The opinion leadership model of the rally effect (Brody 1991) seems to more accurately account for the rally phenomenon.

The factors that seem to effect the size of the rally pertain to how efficiently the dispute is publicized, not the type of the event. The White House increases the size of a rally through eloquent presidential statements, acquiring bipartisan support, and media coverage. The public does not rally in response to a crisis in and of itself, but rather to how the president manages and portrays the events. This suggests that public relations skills of an American president are an progressively more essential instrument for the successful management of public opinion of international conflicts which involve the United

States. The political nature of the factors that cause a rally lead me to hypothesize that rallies will be larger in periods of divided government. Divided government occurs when the President and the majority party in Congress have different partisanships. Divided government makes bipartisan cooperation more likely by giving moderates the advantage of greater influence. Divided government creates a credibility dilemma, because the electorate does not know whom to blame or accredit for governmental actions (Mellow and Trubowitz).

Presidents are easy targets or capegoats; a divided government makes them less likely to be held accountable for the government’s failures because the public has a conceivable alternative for assigning liability to Congress. The majority party in congress has the same incentives as the President to pass the blame. During a divided government there are high levels of opposition party criticism towards the president prior to a crisis (Nicholson). After a major emergency the partisan relationship goes through three stages. The first stage is genuine solidarity; during this stage the legislative branch votes a lot of power to the xecutive.

The second stage is ersatz solidarity, when the parties continue the fapde of solidarity (Vermeule). Resulting in open conflict, the initial cooperation and support for the executive causes the public to rally for the president. The reason for this initial support is opposition leaders may avoid criticizing the president because the administration has a virtual monopoly of information about the foreign events and they do not want to appear ill informed or unpatriotic. The Party elites also have a better chance of getting media coverage if they make a statement to support the President.

This creates an incentive to agree with the president in order to get publicity, and be able to give opinions on other topics (Howell). Media outlets disproportionably cover opposition party identifiers statements in support of the president because they are less common opinions (Baum, 2002). Non- party presidential praise is extremely persuasive and influential to the public, especially non-party identifiers (Baum and Groeling). The media is a gatekeeper for the information the public receives. When the media covers statements supporting the president the public is influenced.

Unlike the President who is always able to get media coverage and publicity about the issues that are interesting to him, members of congress and other party elites have to act strategically to get media coverage. The lack of political opposition and criticism of the president’s policies combined with the media lacking the resources to present opposing interpretations of the crisis creates an environment where the public is largely cut off from the cues it traditionally employs to develop an opinion and form Judgments on political phenomena.

Without easily accessible cues presented through the media from those ith whom they identify politically or ideologically, the public is led to assume that there is a consensus among political leaders on the issue and to support the president, even if they would otherwise be inclined to oppose him. Since most Americans know little about foreign affairs they rely on heuristic cues from credible sources. One credible source many Americans rely on is the co- partisan party elites. Support from opposition party members is very influential because the American public trusts their party elites (Baker). Times of divided government are estimated to increase the immediate rally for the president 4. percent” (Colaresi). The public also has more trust during divided government because they believe the branches will check each other. Divided government acts to increase the potential political cost of a foreign policy action and thus increases the persuasiveness ofa leader’s signal. The public can be more confident that a legislature under opposition control will use its subpoena and oversight power to uncover abuses of power.

While it may not be in the president’s party’s interest to attack a foreign policy action that was undertaken for private rather than public gain, an opposition party will have no such qualms (Schultz). During divided government the legislature is more likely to hold hearings and investigate presidential decisions under divided government. Between 1954 and 1989 the average number of hearings on defense and international affairs was 25 percent higher under divided government (Martin). The public feels like they are being informed which increases their support.

Methods and Data I have combined the rally events used in the articles, “Rallying Around the Flag: Foreign Policy events and presidential popularity,” “”Pretty Prudent”? Public Responses to U. S. Uses of Force, 1950-1988,” and the major uses of force according to American Military History (www. historyguy. com/american_military_history. html) ending with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I gathered 68 rally events which are composed of 28 wars and military crisis events, 9 peace and reconciliation, 11 summit conferences, 6 policy initiatives, 11 International Setbacks, and four personal events.

Then I used News, Norms, Indexing and a Unified Government (http://arts. bev. net/ roper David/politics/congress. htm) to determine if the even occurred during divided or unified government. Lastly, I used public approval ratings from the Gerhard Peters: The American Presidency Project (www. residency. ucsb. edu/data/ popularity. php) to measure the change in presidential approval after the rally event. The data was statistically analyzed. Data Analysis Table 1: Change in Approval Variable Obs. Mean std. Dev. Min Max All Rally Events 4. 91176 6. 986677 -8 Divided Government 5. 026316 7. 937209 Unified Government 4. 266667 5. 662541 14 Table 2: Statistical Significance 1 . oooo Divided Discussion Change ??”l divided Change in Approval 0. 0544 1. 0000 0. 6596 I found that in general a president can expect to increase public approval ratings by 4. 5 percent following a rally event. This is consistent with previous literature. I did not find evidence to support my hypothesis. There is little, or no effect that divided government has on the rally phenomenon.

The average change in table one for divided government makes it appear that divided government increases that rally by . 75 percent, but the fgures show that these numbers are not actually different, and they are also not statistically significant. When the data was plotted in a box plot it exemplified that there is a slightly greater rally effect during unified government (Figures 1 and 2). These findings were inconsistent with a lot of the previous iterature. This could be due to the fact that I did not only consider military engagements, or other biases formed in the case selection process.

One of the reasons attention was focused towards divided government’s effect on the rally-around- the-flag phenomenon is because the two largest rallies occurred during divided government. The first was the Gulf War in 1991 under Bush Senior’s Administration. Bush experienced an increase of 28 percent. Then the largest rally occurred following September 1 1, 2001, under George W. Bush’s administration, he experienced a 34 percent increase in public approval. The rally that followed September 1 lth was fueled by patriotism. Many Americans actually gathered and prayed around the American Flag.

This surge in public approval enabled Bush to enact his political agenda, and have ample public support of invading Iraq and waging the “War on Terror. ” Both Bush administrations were immensely aided by the rally. An example ofa military dispute that did not result in a rally was in 1971, under the Nixon Administration, the expansion of military involvement in Laos. This event caused a decrease of seven percent public approval. Another reason that the effect of divided government is hindered is if the egislative branch is divided the accountably dilemma is attributed to partisan affiliation rather than congress blaming the executive.

Also divided government inhabits higher levels of presidential public approval (Nicholson et. al. ), and rallies are larger when public approval is low, because the president has more room to improve(Baum 2002). One of the President’s most influential powers is persuasion. The President has to take advantage of any political tools that will enable him to implement his agenda. The ability to create or inflate the size of a rally can be extremely advantageous to the President.