Issue Ownership and Entrenchment in Presidential Elections

My paper will combine two strands of research in political science: issue ownership and entrenchment theory. Issue ownership describes the extent to which a political party is seen as the one credible problem-solver for a particular concern held by the electorate. The party can exploit its image by playing up the importance of the issue it owns. As shown in a study by political scientist John Petrocik, voters look to Democrats to fix social welfare issues and to Republicans for fiscal, moral, or security concerns. The parties focus on their owned issues in their campaigns, and get results: Petrocik shows a 65-75% correlation between the electorate’s concerns, campaign content, and vote share for the last fifty years of presidential elections.

We would expect Democrats and Republicans to adopt particular strategies in response to this trend. Rational politicians should highlight the issues they own and downplay those of their opponents. But what form should this attempt to affect issue salience take—simple showboating and mudslinging? Perhaps under most circumstances, but I’m interested in exploring a special case of issue ownership in which politicians fight dirty.

Enter entrenchment theory, model in political economy which predicts that leaders will attempt to exacerbate problems they have been elected to solve, or delay introducing a solution, in order toget reelected. I first encountered entrenchment theory in an article on counterinsurgency in Colombia, which demonstrated that the regime “entrenches” on security issues by withdrawing security forces and increasing jingoistic speechifying during election season. Of course, I do not argue that anything so nefarious happens in America, but in light of issue ownership I have to wonder: to what extent do new presidents entrench on issues they own in order to boost their chances of a second term?

Thus far, I’ve been pretty successful researching the theoretical basis of issue ownership and entrenchment. Operationalizing the two will be more difficult, since it entails finding a way to measure issue publicity and performance (or rather, underperformance) that is consistent for each presidency. Here are my thoughts on how I might do this:

-Analyze presidential speeches, such as the State of the Union Address, to see if owned issues receive consistently more negative assessments in first, as opposed to second, terms.

-Measure issue performance on particular issues (such as welfare) and use regression analysis to analyze whether performance consistently lags in first terms

The next methodological problem would be to determine a way to show whether or not issue underperfomance is willful or merely an artifact of a first term in office, but that’s a problem I’ll have to tackle in another blog post

Jesse Dashefsky

Swarthmore ‘13

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One Response to Issue Ownership and Entrenchment in Presidential Elections

  1. Hi Jesse—wow, your project sounds really interesting! I think combining the two issues you highlight—issue ownership and entrenchment—could result in some very interesting conclusions and valuable insight. Good luck with your research; I look forward to meeting you in DC in November and hearing more about what you find.

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