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Is There a Trump Effect? An Experiment on Political Polarization and Audience Costs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2019


Does President Trump face domestic costs for foreign policy inconsistency? Will co-partisans and opposition-partisans equally punish Donald Trump for issuing flippant international threats and backing down? While the president said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters, the literature consistently shows that individuals, regardless of partisanship, disapprove of leaders who jeopardize the country’s reputation for credibility and resolve. Given the atypical nature of the Trump presidency, and the severe partisan polarization surrounding it, we investigate whether the logic of audience costs still applies in the Trump era. Using a unique experiment fielded during the 2016 presidential transition, we show that Republicans and Democrats impose equal audience costs on President Trump. And by varying the leader’s identity, between Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and “The President,” we demonstrate that the public adheres to a non-partisan logic in punishing leaders who renege on threats. Yet we also find Presidents Trump and Obama can reduce the magnitude of audience costs by justifying backing down as being “in America’s interest.” Even Democrats, despite their doubts of Donald Trump’s credibility, accept such justifications. Our findings encourage further exploration of partisan cues, leader-level attributes, and leader-level reputations.

Special Section: Consequences
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

They are especially grateful for the comments, criticisms, and support of John Sides, Rachel Stein, Eric Grynaviski, Yonatan Lupu, Elizabeth Saunders, Joshua Kertzer, Bill Pickens, as well as four anonymous reviewers and the editors of Perspectives on Politics.


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