Backing Out or Backing In? Commitment and Consistency in Audience Costs Theory
American Journal of Political Science
Jack S. Levy, Michael K. McKoy, Paul Poast, Geoffrey P.R. Wallace | June 15, 2015
Audience costs theory posits that domestic publics punish leaders for making an external threat and then backing down. One key mechanism driving this punishment involves the value the public places on consistency between their leaders’ statements and actions. If true, this mechanism should operate not only when leaders fail to implement threats, but also when they fail to honor promises to stay out of a conflict. We use a survey experiment to examine domestic responses to the president's decision to “back down” from public threats and “back into” foreign conflicts. We find the president loses support in both cases, but suffers more for “backing out” than “backing in.” These differential consequences are partially explained by asymmetries in the public's treatment of new information. Our findings strongly suggest that concerns over consistency undergird audience costs theory and that punishment for inconsistency will be incurred, regardless of the leader's initial policy course.