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Kernell: Explaining presidential popularity

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Kernell. 1978. Explaining presidential popularity: How Ad Hoc Theorizing, Misplaced Emphasis, and Insufficient Car. American Political Science Review 72: 506-22.

Main Argument: Time is Not a Variable

Prior to this paper, the conventional wisdom on presidential popularity was that presidents inexorably become less popular over time. Time was given theoretical meaning and was used as an explanatory variable. Kernell argues that time cannot be used as an explanatory variable. Instead, it should be used as a diagnostic to ensure that all trend-producing variables have been identified.

Mueller's Argument

In an analysis of presidential popularity from Truman to Johnson, Mueller used time as the chief explanatory variable of decreasing presidential popularity. Borrowing from Downs, he argues that the president frequently loses public support even when he follows the majority opinion of the public due to the "coalition-of-minorities" effect.

Kernell's Hypotheses:

  1. Short-term changes in presidential popularity are related to real events and conditions
  2. Presidential popularity responds slowly to environmental changes; the president's current popularity reflects the level of approval during the previous month(s).

How to Measure Presidential Popularity: Mueller vs Kernell

Chronic problems: Korea, Vietnam, Watergate

The Economy: Unemployment Rate, Consumer Price Index

Short term surges: "rallies behind the flag"

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Kernell, Samuel (author)American PoliticsPublic OpinionPresidency (US)

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