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Divided Government and Public Attitudes Towards Institutions

The separation of legislative and executive powers in the United States may obscure responsibility for unpopular outcomes. That is, the American political system makes it difficult for its citizens to assign blame or praise for government policies. Partisanship is generally used to bridge the gap created by the separation of powers, yet, divided government where the party in control of the presidency is different from one or both branches of Congress has been common in the post-World War II era. This division heightens the ambiguity inherent in the separation of powers and encourages citizens to give the president and Congress the benefit of the doubt deserved or not. Consequently, and consistent with our earlier work (Nicholson, Segura and Woods 2002), presidents enjoy higher approval ratings during periods of divided government.

In this effort, we move beyond looking at public attitudes towards a single institution. Rather, we examine how citizens navigate the separation of powers in rendering paired judgments of the president and Congress (e.g., does a citizen approve both Congress and the president?). Using data from the American National Election Studies from 1980 to 2004, we use multinomial logit to estimate the effects of divided government and other factors typically associated with opinion of these institutions on the likelihood that a citizen 1) approves both Congress and the president; 2) disapproves both; 3) approves Congress but disapproves the president; 4) approves the president but disapproves the Congress. We demonstrate that citizens are more likely to approve of both the president and Congress during periods of divided government and much less likely to disapprove of both branches during divided government while controlling for a variety of factors typically associated with opinion of these institutions. Furthermore, we show that the presidents approval may increase at the expense of Congress but not reverse. We conclude with thoughts on the implications of these findings to our understanding of responsible party government and the separation of powers. This work is joint with Stephen P Nicholson, UC Merced.