Is Obama the Worst President? Poll Setup Clouds the Issue

Is Obama the Worst President? Poll Setup Clouds the Issue

By Sean Trende - July 3, 2014

A poll from Quinnipiac has been making the rounds of late, with the media focusing in on a question that purportedly shows Americans consider Barack Obama the worst president since World War II (he led all others with 33 percent of the responses).  But that is a problematic conclusion to draw from this particular question. First, we could just as easily state that 67 percent of Americans believe that someone other than Obama is the worst postwar president.

More importantly, these sorts of “multiple choice” questions, which pop up from time to time in various contexts, tend to raise eyebrows, because partisan unity can drive the results.  And what really drives this particular finding is that Republicans are much more unified in their dislike of Obama than Democrats are in their dislike of any particular GOP president. A full 63 percent of Republicans identify Obama as the worst, with Jimmy Carter lagging far behind at 14 percent, an almost 50-percentage-point differential.

Among Democrats, however, 54 percent name George W. Bush as the worst president, followed by Richard Nixon at 20 percent, a 34-point differential.  Had Democrats been able to agree more on their least-favorite president, Obama might not have come in first.

Indeed, if we add up the percentages for all the Democratic and Republican presidents on the list, 49 percent of respondents named a Republican commander-in-chief, while 47 percent of named a Democratic one.  (Among Independents, 50 percent named a Democrat, while 43 percent named a Republican, but this probably reflects the disproportionate number of disaffected Republicans who currently consider themselves Independent).

You can see further evidence of this tendency if you look at the trend lines for question 36 (the “Who is the worst president?” question). Back in 2006, Bush was viewed as the worst -- and it wasn’t close. Back then, Republicans still chose Democratic presidents as the worst, but they had a harder time settling on one: 16 percent chose Bill Clinton, 13 percent chose Carter, and 4 percent chose Lyndon Johnson.  Today, 14 percent of respondents chose those three presidents combined, less than the share that chose Clinton alone eight years ago.

This isn’t to dismiss the Quinnipiac poll in its entirety, which has some truly bad findings for the president and the Democrats.  It is simply to say that this particular question merely reflects the partisan differences in the country, and the particular concentration of partisan dislike of this president.  Americans are basically split evenly on whether the worst postwar president was a Republican or a Democrat, which is what you’d expect in a 50-50 nation.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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