Presidents Day Special: Interpreting Presidential Rankings

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics released the results of a poll (conducted with Ipsos) of American ratings of past presidents. Rating presidents is a time honored historical game. There are some generally accepted conclusions — Lincoln was the best, Nixon the worst. There are always fun re-interpretations. Ulysses S Grant has his fans, as does McKinley and Martin Van Buren. Everyone loves Teddy Roosevelt (except H.L. Mencken of course.)

I of course have deep sympathy for all (or almost all) of those who have held our highest office. As Damon Runyon wrote of FDR, “He only did the best he could, no man could have done more.”

Sabato’s poll shows what regular Americans think of the last dozen holders of the office.

Table from Sabato’s Silver Ball at UVA Center for Politics

My first thought on reviewing this list is a frightening one — and true. The list is a ranking based on looks. That is why JFK always comes out on top, followed by movie star Reagan, cool hand Barack, and Bill Clinton who was sort of a deep-fried JFK. At the bottom we have our baldest and most bloated president in recent history, followed by LBJ with his outsized facial features, and of course Nixon.

But really, what is the deal with JFK? Not just Democrats, Republicans also love him, rating him ahead of Eisenhower (to say nothing of Ford and Nixon.) He was an immensely attractive man, exemplar of a new generation, who — besides his looks — was witty and appeared to dispatch his office with aplomb. He was blessed with a beautiful and graceful wife and he died tragically and young.

With JFK’s assassination, it seemed America broke. We had the turmoil of the 1960s, the terrible war in Vietnam, and Watergate. In a college science fiction writing class about alternative histories, two stories in a class of a dozen, featured LBJ and the war in Vietnam (one by me.) We had been children when that war ended, but it cast a long shadow.

Watergate, the outgrowth of JFK’s GOP foil, may make another Kennedyesque Camelot impossible. JFK was a deeply flawed man. Besides the compulsive womanizing, he had severe health problems that left him in great pain and were controlled with significant pharmaceuticals. The press knew, but allowed the president’s private life to remain private. After Nixon, that was no longer possible. The presidency was brought out of the shadows.

We mourn the man, but we also mourn the moment.

Somehow in our collective memory JFK sits alongside Lincoln in our imaginary Mount Rushmore, while other figures — truly giant — have begun to fade.

Splitting Differences

It is interesting to compare the splits between the ratings by party. The average partisan difference is 2.07. The largest splits are over Obama and Trump, both over 5. Somehow this is not a surprise. The Democrats’ rating of Obama is the highest rating of any president by any partisan group and their rating of Trump is the lowest. The Republican rating of Trump is the third highest of any president by partisan group (after Obama by Democrats and Reagan by Republicans). The Republican rating of Obama is the third lowest rating of any president by a partisan group (beating out only Nixon and Trump among Democrats.)

I made this Table, using the UVA/Ipsos poll

The second largest partisan splits are over Reagan and Clinton at 2.88. The smallest partisan split is over LBJ, only .31 (more on him below.)

The Democrats appear to be easier on rating Republicans than vice-versa. The Democrats rate LBJ as the worst president from their party, and rate four Republicans ahead of him. Besides Reagan, the Bushes and Eisenhower are all rated just a bit below average.

The GOP only rates JFK ahead of Nixon (the Republican they rate lowest). Interestingly, Republican respondents go somewhat easy on LBJ, rating him middle of the pack as far as Democrats go — only a little worse than Democrats rate him. LBJ is interesting because (like Ford) Independents rate both of them significantly lower than the opposing party. This highlights the observation above, that for many people Johnson is where things started to go wrong for the United States.

It was Reagan who said the 11thcommandment was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of they fellow Republican.” Perhaps a bit of that party discipline shows here the lockstep Republican preference for Republicans.

Gender and Generations

The poll also broke down ratings of presidents by gender and generation. On the gender side, there were several cases of men distinctly rating certain presidents higher than women did. Eisenhower has the strongest split, possibly men think — well he was a general so he must be ok. The male preference for Trump is hardly unknown, but there are comparable male preferences for LBJ and Nixon. Lest one think it is because women blanched at their homeliness, men also preferred JFK and Reagan. I have no idea why men rated these presidents higher than women.

Table from Sabato’s Silver Ball at the UVA Center for Politics

The only president women rated higher than men did was Obama. Perhaps his model, modern marriage in which his wife was clearly outspoken and engaged (after the demure Laura Bush) was appealing.

The breakdowns of different generations’ presidential ratings is particularly interesting and may be the most significant of the survey. The survey notes that actually remembering presidents may play a significant role in rating them. The 55+ bracket overall rates presidents at 5.67, their lowest rating is Nixon at 4.36 (not bad considering they remember Watergate!) Except for Obama and Clinton, the 55+ cohort rates presidents from both parties higher than the other cohorts. And their ratings of Obama and Clinton, while the lowest, are not that low at about 5.5.

The 18–34 cohort has at best blah ratings for presidents outside their living memory except for JFK (that magic really has lived.) They are huge outliers on Reagan, seeing him as a bit below average.

Can I just say that it kills me that fully formed adults with jobs and advanced degrees were born after Reagan left office — time is inexorable!

Overall the farther back you go, the more my generation (35–54, caught in the middle) converges with the 18–34 cohort. On more recent presidents they are closer to the elders. In overall ratings, my generation’s average ratings are 5.07 while the 18–34s is 4.64. The only recent presidents they rate as above average are Clinton and Obama (who comes in at a whopping 6.96 — they really liked him.)

The obvious interpretation is, as I mentioned, that simply remembering who presidents were. But it is also possible, that having entered the workforce in the face of a huge recession and watching their nation struggle with a pair of endless wars, they maybe younger generations are more skeptical of authority and their national leadership. But their tremendous affection for Obama and their continuing to carry the Kennedy flame suggests that they are not so cynical that they cannot be inspired.

Originally published at on February 20, 2018.

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