Distributed April 30, 2003
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Senators’ approval ratings influenced largely by factors beyond control

Senators’ own attempts to influence approval ratings have less effect than factors beyond their control, according to a new study. Researchers examined eight factors related to senatorial approval ratings over a 17-year period, from 1981 to 1997. Their findings are published in the May Legislative Studies Quarterly.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Although elected officials may attempt to influence public approval ratings as they look toward reelection, their own tactical maneuvers do not have as much effect as factors beyond their control, according to a new study by political scientists at three universities.

Contextual factors such as their state’s economic performance and size, their own number of years in the Senate, presidential popularity and the popularity of the other senator from the state have a greater impact on their approval ratings than tactical maneuvers such as bill sponsorship and media activity, according to findings reported in the May Legislative Studies Quarterly.

“Senators clearly want to maximize the likelihood that they are reelected, so they seek to build favorable impressions with constituents,” wrote authors Wendy Schiller of Brown University, Brian F. Schaffner of Western Michigan University and Patrick J. Sellers of Davidson College. “Senators’ efforts pay off to some extent, but the contextual factors beyond their control tend to exert more influence.”

In the most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers examined 552 senatorial approval ratings from 1981 to 1997, taken from the U.S. Official Job Approval Ratings Web site, which captures surveys by commercial, media and university organizations. The analysis included information on nearly 60 percent of all individuals serving in the U.S. Senate during the 16-year period. The following eight tactical and contextual influences on approval ratings were examined; previous studies focused on fewer factors.

Tactics within the control of legislators:

  • introducing legislation;
  • position taking (roll call voting offers the most prominent type of position taking);
  • news coverage.

Contextual factors beyond legislators’ control:

  • home-state population;
  • home-state economic performance;
  • seniority;
  • popularity or unpopularity of a president;
  • actions of the other senator in the state’s delegation.

Of the three tactics for boosting home-state support, press activity exerted the strongest influence, said the authors. Media coverage in national and local outlets can distribute information to more constituents than sending newsletters or meeting them individually. Other significant influences on home-state approval lay less directly within a senator’s control.

Among the most notable links was that between state population and approval ratings. Larger states tend to be more heterogeneous and thus more difficult to represent. Additionally, the state’s economy had a bearing on approval ratings. Senators from states with weak or no growth may receive blame for the unfavorable economic trends, the authors said.

Seniority in the Senate also proved a factor. With more years of service, legislators have more opportunities to help constituents and build favorable name recognition. As legislators work to build name recognition and serve their states, the accumulation of such efforts over time translates to higher approval ratings.

A state electorate’s evaluation of the nation’s president appeared linked to the senators’ ratings, particularly if the president was from the same party. In contrast, approval ratings of senators not in the president’s party are not influenced as heavily by the president’s approval rating.

The findings also suggest a relationship between a senator’s approval rating and the other senator in the delegation. Two senators representing a state often develop different policy portfolios, each in hopes of creating a distinct reputation in the eyes of constituents – one may be more favorable to voters.

Unanswered questions remain, including the post-election effects of a tough reelection race, said the authors. Schiller is an associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University; Schaffner, assistant professor of political science at Western Michigan University; and Sellers, associate professor of political science at Davidson College.