Government Research Intern: Dilip Kanuga

Title: Presidential Popularity and Oppositional Voting Patterns on Presidentially-Backed Legislation

Author: Dilip Kanuga


Studies have been made to examine the President’s “Honeymoon Period”, the period of euphoria following a president’s inauguration. The research I have concerned myself with asks the question: when the public is supportive of an incoming president’s beliefs on policy, does opposition in Congress tend to be more conciliatory and vote in support of a popular president’s position? If the honeymoon period does exist, what effects do differences in popularity have on potentially influencing congressional opposition (and maintaining a loyal same-party coalition with fewer defectors)?

There are three major methodological questions my project needed to answer before processing the data. First, I need to understand how and which presidents can be classified as “popular.” I decided to look at the president’s electoral success with both the popular vote and electoral vote. If they pass a certain point threshold, they are designated as “popular”. The modern presidents that are considered popular (irrespective of polling, starting with “most popular” and descending thereafter) are as follows: Reagan, Eisenhower, Bush 41, Obama, and Clinton. The modern presidents that are considered non-popular (starting with “most popular” and descending thereafter) are as follows: Kennedy, Carter, Nixon, and Bush 43. — Truman, Johnson, and Ford were not considered. Further, in an effort to limit the retrieved data to times when public support would remain present, I only take into account the president’s first Congress while in office.

Second, the data are gathered from president’s beliefs on major pieces of legislation during their first congress. To research major pieces of legislation, I use Congressional Quarterly and Almanac to gather my data on which pieces of legislation a president outwardly voiced his opinion regarding, Congressional Quarterly Landmark Legislation 1774-2002, The Yeas and the Nays by Castel and Gibson, and to find voting records for those major pieces of legislation. Finally, I outline each president’s party affiliation and there “opposition” in Congress is considered as any legislator who belongs to a party different than that of the president’s.

I analyzed opposition votes in support of the president’s opinion from Obama to Eisenhower. For example, under President Reagan the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 (HR 4995), 35.91% of Democrats voted in favor of the Republican president’s stance on the legislation. After completing this same process for all modern presidents, with each having 50-70 major pieces of legislation, the results thus far have indicated only marginal changes in oppositional support with changing popularity: a negligible 2% swing in favor of popular presidents.

Interestingly however, with this research I thought it would also be of value to simultaneously record the votes for same-party legislators in all the same bills. As it turns out, when tracking same-party support on presidentially-backed legislation, it appears that the more popular a president is the more likely it is he will have fewer defectors: a more notable swing of 8% in favor of popular presidents.

Opposite-party support change was surprising in its non-conformity; same-party support was surprising in how it seems to be tied in some way to differences in popularity. With the potential future results of this research, including the addition of data for pre-modern presidents, it can be understood not only how schisms stem in Congress, but also how two branches of government play off one another when you have an explicit majority of public support won by the Executive Branch.