Plants are attacked by many different consumers. A critical question is how often, and under what conditions, common reductions in growth, fecundity or even survival that occur due to herbivory translate to meaningful impacts on abundance, distribution or dynamics of plant populations. Here, we review population-level studies of the effects of consumers on plant dynamics and evaluate: (i) whether particular consumers have predictably more or less influence on plant abundance, (ii) whether particular plant life-history types are predictably more vulnerable to herbivory at the population level, (iii) whether the strength of plant–consumer interactions shifts predictably across environmental gradients and (iv) the role of consumers in influencing plant distributional limits. Existing studies demonstrate numerous examples of consumers limiting local plant abundance and distribution. We found larger effects of consumers on grassland than woodland forbs, stronger effects of herbivory in areas with high versus low disturbance, but no systematic or unambiguous differences in the impact of consumers based on plant life-history or herbivore feeding mode. However, our ability to evaluate these and other patterns is limited by the small (but growing) number of studies in this area. As an impetus for further study, we review strengths and challenges of population-level studies, such as interpreting net impacts of consumers in the presence of density dependence and seed bank dynamics.