Get access

Polls and Elections: Divided Government and Foreign Relations Approval


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We thank Greg McAvoy, Steve Nicholson, and Gary Segura for providing their data. All errors are ours.

Brian Newman is associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University. He studies public opinion and political representation and is author, with John Griffin, of Minority Report: Evaluating Political Equality in America.
Kevin Lammert earned a B.A. in political science from Pepperdine University and will begin medical school in the fall of 2011.


During divided government, the public tends to attribute credit and blame for economic conditions to both the president and Congress. However, the “two presidencies” thesis argues that presidents have more influence vis-à-vis Congress in shaping foreign policy compared to domestic policy, so the public may attribute all foreign policy outcomes to the president alone. This suggests that the boost presidents typically receive in their overall approval during divided government due to sharing the blame for negative economic conditions will not extend to their foreign relations approval numbers. We find that presidents do enjoy higher overall approval during divided government. However, contrary to the two presidencies thesis, presidents also enjoy higher foreign relations approval during divided government. We explore four potential explanations for this puzzle and point to future research questions the puzzle raises.