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Presidential Particularism and US Trade Politics*


Research on presidential distributive politics focuses almost exclusively on federal domestic spending. Yet, presidential influence on public policy extends well-beyond grant allocation. Since the early 20th Century, for example, the president has had substantial discretion to adjust tariff schedules and non-tariff barriers “with the stroke of a pen.” These trade adjustments via presidential directive allow us to test the logic of presidential particularism in an area of policy understudied among presidency scholars. We examine unilateral adjustments to US trade policies between 1917 and 2006, with a detailed analysis of those made between 1986 and 2006, and find that presidents—in accordance with electoral incentives—strategically allocate trade protections to industries in politically valuable states. In general, states in which the president lacks a comfortable electoral majority are systematically more likely to receive protectionist unilateral orders. Overall, our results show that the president’s distributive imperative extends into the realm of foreign affairs, an arena in which the president has substantial authority to influence public policy.

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Kenneth S. Lowande, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Seigle Hall 273, Campus Box 1063, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 ( Jeffery A. Jenkins, Provost Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Director of the Bedrosian Center, Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise, USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, Lewis Hall 312, Los Angeles, California 90089-0626 ( Andrew J. Clarke, Assistant Professor of Government and Law, Lafayette College, 102 Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, Easton, PA 18042 ( The authors thank George Krause and Doug Kriner for helpful comments and suggestions. All authors contributed equally to this article. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

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Political Science Research and Methods
  • ISSN: 2049-8470
  • EISSN: 2049-8489
  • URL: /core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods
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