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The Conditional Nature of Presidential Responsiveness to Public Opinion


  • Brandice Canes-Wrone,

  • Kenneth W. Shotts


This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Errata: Volume 55, Issue 4, 737, Article first published online: 12 October 2011

  • For helpful comments we thank Mike Alvarez, Jeff Cohen, Bill Keech, Dave Lewis, Alan Wiseman, Craig Volden, John Zaller, three anonymous referees, and seminar participants at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, NYU, Princeton, the University of Rochester, Stanford, the 2002 Elections Conference at Columbia University, and the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Brandice Canes-Wrone thanks the California Institute of Technology and Ken Shotts thanks the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton for generous support during the writing of the article.

Brandice Canes-Wrone is Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Robertson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540 ( Kenneth W. Shotts is Associate Professor of Political Economics, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 518 Memorial Way, Stanford, CA 94305 (


How does public opinion affect presidential policymaking? We address this issue by testing a diverse set of hypotheses with data concerning a set of individual policies across time. In particular, the data revolve around presidential budgetary proposals on a set of major policy issues for which there are recurring surveys on citizens' preferences over spending. The analysis suggests that presidents are more responsive to mass opinion on issues that are familiar to citizens in their everyday lives. Also, for reelection-seeking presidents, responsiveness is shown to depend upon two key political factors. First, presidents are more responsive to public opinion when the next election is imminent. Second, the effect of presidential popularity is nonmonotonic; presidents with average approval ratings are most likely to adopt policy positions congruent with public opinion, whereas presidents with approval ratings that are significantly above or below average have the greatest propensity to take unpopular positions.