Jody C. Baumgartner – Public Opinion About The US Vice President: Still Flying Under The Radar

This is a guest post by Jody C. Baumgartner, Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University. It is based on his forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly

Since its inception the American vice presidency and vice presidents have been the subject of ridicule and scorn. Late night television talk show king Johnny Carson once quipped that “democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice president”. Many vice presidents took a dim view of the office as well. For example, Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, told the joke of “two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.” This negative view of the office and its inhabitants was perhaps inevitable given that the institution was created largely as the by-product of the Electoral College system of selecting presidents. Moreover, throughout history many vice presidents seemed worthy of derision.

But scholars and observers of the U.S. presidency agree that this is no longer the case. The vice presidency has come of age, and vice presidents are important players in a president’s administration (see Baumgartner 2015; Goldstein 2016). While Vice President Pence may prove to be the exception, vice presidents are increasingly called on to perform any number of important ceremonial, political and policy-related tasks for their presidents. To call modern vice presidents “assistant presidents” may overstate their importance, it is nonetheless true that the institution a significant part of twenty-first century American government.

Does this reality match how the American public sees the office and its occupants? My own recent research, while not providing a definitive answer, suggests that in some respects it does not. In particular, analyses of both favorability and job approval ratings for the past four presidents and vice presidents suggest that citizens do not form their opinions of vice presidents independent of their opinions of presidents. In other words, “vice presidential favorability and job approval ratings are overwhelmingly influenced by opinion of the president” (Baumgartner 2017: 1).

ABOUT THE STUDY

Although presidential favorability and job approval has been regularly measured since at least the Truman administration, it has only been a couple of decades that the same can be said about ratings for vice presidents. This research take advantage of this, relying on both presidential and vice presidential favorability and job approval polling numbers for the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. I attempted to gather data for each question (favorability and job approval) for each president and  vice president, from both public (e.g., pollingreport.com) and subscription-based (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research) sources, for every month in office. Missing data (17.3% of the total number of months for each question, for president or vice president) points were interpolated using James Stimson’s “W-Calc,” which also allowed me to collapse the various questions used by different organizations to measure these concepts into a single measure (Stimson 1991).

The final dataset included favorability and job approval ratings for the following presidents and vice presidents:

Favorability (Months) Job Approval (Months)
Quayle/Bush n=38 n=38
Gore/Clinton n=94 n=44
Cheney/Bush n=95 n=148
Biden/Obama n=76 n=53

The first step in my analysis was to check bivariate relationships between both types of presidential and vice presidential ratings. At first blush, with the exception of Bush-Quayle, there appears to be a fair degree of congruence between presidential and vice presidential ratings. This can be seen in Figures 1-3, which simply charts rating scores by month, for each administration.

Next I constructed time-series models, with presidential ratings as the dependent variable, to test these relationships. Vice presidential ratings served as the primary independent variable in each, but I also included measures for term in office, whether the president’s party had a majority in either or both houses of Congress, public favorability toward the president’s party, and the percentage of negative news about the vice president. Results suggest that presidential favorability had a significant effect on vice presidential favorability in the cases of both Quayle (p < .001) and Gore (p < .01). Presidential job approval had a significant effect on vice presidential job approval for Gore (p < .01), Cheney (p < .001) and Biden (p < .05). When all four administrations were combined into a single model, presidential ratings for both favorability and job approval were significantly associated with vice presidential ratings (both random and fixed effects models, p < .001).

The understanding that the vice presidency has grown in importance over the recent past ought to be tempered by the reality that most people seem unaware of this change. Vice presidents still live in the shadow of their presidents. Of course it might be easy to dismiss these findings, asking why we should care about public opinion about the vice president. However it is important to remember that vice presidents are one of only two nationally elected public officials. The lack of independent public opinion associated with their tenures suggests that they may be less than fully accountable in a democratic sense.

SOURCES

Baumgartner, Jody C. 2015. The Vice Presidency: From the Shadow to the Spotlight. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Baumgartner, Jody C. 2017. “Under the Radar: Public Support for Vice Presidents.” Presidential Studies Quarterly (DOI: 10.1111/psq.12381).

Goldstein, Joel K. 2016. The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden. Lawrence KS: University Press of Kansas.

Stimson, James A. 1991. Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Jody C Baumgartner, Professor of Political Science
East Carolina University
Greenville NC 27834
e: jodyb@jodyb.net
p: 252-328-2843

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