Presidential Cues and the Nationalization of Congressional Rhetoric, 1973–2016

The forthcoming article “Presidential Cues and the Nationalization of Congressional Rhetoric, 1973–2016 by Benjamin S. Noble is summarized by the author below. 

Presidents occupy a unique position as both the head of the executive branch and a de-facto party leader. In this dual role, they nationalize politics and polarize lawmaking. Members of Congress know this, and they reference the president in their rhetoric to nationalize debate and polarize constituents. However, I argue that lawmakers should reference the president more often when they are in the non-presidential party. As Americans have become negative partisans—motivated by their dislike of the other party rather than support for their own—lawmakers in the opposition party have incentives to use the president as a negative cue. By invoking the president, they can signal information to otherwise inattentive constituents about policy and the kind of representation they provide. Although presidential co-partisans might be motivated to support the president and appeal to co-partisan constituents, I show that these incentives are weaker and can be damaging, mobilizing out-party opposition more than they increase presidential party support.  

I support this argument in two parts. First, I search through a database of two million House and Senate floor speeches given between 1973-2016 for direct references of the president. I find that lawmakers—at the individual level—reference the president more often when the White House is controlled by the other party (as compared to when they are presidential co-partisans). I also show that this reference gap is moderated by constituency support for the president. The gap is larger for out-party lawmakers representing states or districts that voted more heavily against the president in the last election.  

But how do constituents respond to presidential references? To find out, I conducted a survey experiment in the summer of 2021 where participants were asked to read a hypothetical policy speech given by a hypothetical Republican or Democratic senator. I randomized whether the senator did or did not reference President Biden when discussing policy. When republican survey-takers saw the republican senator referencing the president (versus the republican senator not referencing the president), republicans were more supportive of that senator and preferred lawmakers to stand up for their principles rather than compromise with the other party. However, there is no evidence that the democratic senator was able to increase their approval among Democrats by referencing President Biden. In fact, referencing the president was damaging—republican survey-takers decreased their support for the democratic senator. Ultimately, these asymmetric responses among the public help explain the asymmetric patterns we see in congressional floor speeches. 

This research highlights the president’s role as a nationalizing symbol in congressional rhetoric—one out-partisans use strategically to polarize their co-partisan constituents. Ultimately, the findings are important for understanding how legislators respond to, and reflect, conditions of nationalization and negative partisanship within the institution of Congress.

About the Author: Benjamin S. Noble is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. Their research Presidential Cues and the Nationalization of Congressional Rhetoric, 1973–2016 is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.