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Kernell: Presidential popularity and negative voting

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Kernell. 1977. Presidential popularity and negative voting: An alternative explanation of the midterm Congressiona. APSR 71: 44-66.

The Literature: Surge and Decline

The literature postulates a "surge and decline" effect: During presidential years, candidates rally lots of people to the polls. Candidate personalities clash, making the election interesting. Lots of independents come out and create presidential coattails. Midterm elections, on the other hand, feature poorly-known candidates and less interesting issues. Thus, even if the Republicans enjoy a surge of support (from lots of independent voters) in a presidential year, fewer people turn out and fewer people defect in off years.

(Background: Miller and Stokes knew that the president's party almost always loses seats in midterm elections. Their surge and decline theory was nice, but didn't work. Also, it didn't explain 'how many' seats the president's party should lose.)

Two Problems with "Surge and Decline"

  1. It is based too much on what happened in 1958, which was a midterm following a very strange election (lots of Democrats voted for Eisenhower).
  2. It doesn't predict reality. In particular, "surge and decline" predicts that fewer independents should vote in midterm years than in presidential years--but that just isn't true. There as many independents (and as many defections) in midterm years as in presidential years.

Kernell's New Model: Negative Voting

Midterm elections are a referendum on the incumbent president. People vote for or against the president's party. Negative voting is stronger (as an effect on Congressional voting) in midterm elections than presidential elections for two reasons.

  1. There is no opposing candidate. Thus, only the incumbent president is judged (in isolation, not in reference to a possible replacement).
  2. There are fewer (national) issues to take the place of negative voting (since there aren't active debates between two presidential candidates--and two visions for the nation--competing).

Key Findings

  1. "Negative" voting: With the exception of those belonging to the president's party, those who disapprove of the president are more likely to turn out (for midterms) than those who approve.
  2. After controlling for respondent partisanship, presidential approval correlates with midterm partisan preferences.
  3. Disapproval (of the president) is a stronger source of defection (to the other party's candidate for Congress) than approval is.
  4. Among independents, disapproval has a stronger effect on vote choice than approval.