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Political analysts love approval ratings. And, as political scientists James King and Jeffrey Cohen explain, in politics, popularity isn’t a trivial matter. They write that a leader’s “informal powers have a great impact on his or her ability to achieve policy goals, and public approval rating is central among these informal powers.”

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King and Cohen undertook an ambitious study to quantitatively gauge contributors to public favor. Using governorships rather than presidencies, they attempted to analyze what exactly contributes to a state leader’s popularity. Is it personal charisma? Is it political efficacy? Or is it something else entirely?

It seems obvious that likability is a crucial quality for a leader. Elections hinge on getting voters to connect personally with candidates; campaigns strive to make them appear friendly and personable as well as intelligent and authoritative. But, as recent global political events have shown, significant personal controversy does not necessarily lead to professional repercussions. It’s not just about likability. There is a more complex interplay of external factors which can help or hinder a leader in attempts to woo a populace.

King and Cohen explain that while individual attributes and appearance undoubtedly come into play, analyzing “meaningful personal variables” had proven difficult for reliable analysis in the past, given the number and variety of personalities in leadership positions over the years, and how their personalities suited the times they were in office.

Instead, King and Cohen found “that focusing on economic factors, particularly state unemployment, is a fruitful line of inquiry.” While it may seem unfair to hold a leader personally accountable for the strength of a state’s economy, the issue nevertheless remains at the forefront of voter psychology.

“The theory of retrospective voting and the notion that voters reward or punish incumbents for current conditions dominate the study of gubernatorial elections. Similarly, when asked to evaluate their governor’s job performance, citizens tend to reward the governor with a positive rating when conditions are good and punish him or her with a negative rating when conditions are bad,” write King and Cohen.

Likability and efficacy can be weak contenders next to the reality of scarce job openings or rising prices. State leaders become the embodiment of voter satisfaction or frustration with the state of the market.


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State Politics & Policy Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Fall, 2005), pp. 225-247
Sage Publications, Inc.