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July 2, 2014

Best president? Worst president? Don't read too much into those polls

A Quinnipiac poll that is getting some attention today finds that "Obama is first as worst president since World War II."

Ignore those polls!

This new Quinnipiac poll does provide further evidence that President Barack Obama's mild rally that began late last year has stalled or reversed. He's a at 40 percent approval in this survey. More importantly, the HuffPollster average has him at 44 percent. Their "less smoothing" version, which is more sensitive to recent changes, has him a bit below 43 percent. Those aren't strong numbers.

But the questions about who are the best and worst post-WWII presidents are useless.

What they mainly show is that Republicans are far more unified around a single story than are Democrats.

I'll explain. On "best president," Republicans are unified around Ronald Reagan: 66 percent pick him, with no one else getting more than 6 percent. Republicans are similarly in agreement on "worst president," with Obama clobbering Jimmy Carter, 63 percent to 14 percent, and no one else better than 5 percent.

Democrats, however, have a competitive race for best president: Bill Clinton, at 34 percent, John Kennedy and Obama, at 18 percent. For worst president, Democrats again split between George W. Bush, at 54 percent, and Richard Nixon, at 20 percent.

With Republicans united and Democrats split, the "winners" simply reflect that Republican unity, so Reagan wins "best" and Obama "worst." That would be the case even if Obama was quite a bit more popular.

This might reflect more efficient Republican transmission of talking points from elites to the rank-and-file. But it might just as well reflect the happenstances of history. Democrats have several reasonable candidates to choose from. Clinton and Kennedy were very popular; Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman had impressive accomplishments, along with the wars that made each unpopular while in office.

Republicans? They're not going to choose Richard Nixon or, most likely, Gerald Ford. Both Bushes were unpopular while in office, and don't really have the historical stature to overcome that. Dwight Eisenhower was an excellent president, but his views were very removed from contemporary mainstream conservatism, and at any rate the 1950s are ancient history to most respondents. Of course they'll pick Reagan. And it's no surprise that they choose the current occupant of the Oval Office over long-gone Carter, either, let alone the popular Clinton.

All of that should work out the way it has without any Fox News prompting.

And none of it tells us anything interesting about public opinion of recent presidents. For example, do Republicans ignore Ike because he isn't conservative, because his presidency was too far in the past, or because they just like Reagan better? We can't even begin to guess from these data. The comparison questions just don't work.

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