How to Read That Poll in Which Obama Is Seen as the “Worst President”

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 2 2014 10:56 AM

How to Read That Poll in Which Obama Is Seen as the “Worst President”

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Really the worst?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The conservative side of the media is all twitterpated by the new poll from Quinnipiac, its second in a very long-term survey that asks Americans who the best and worst presidents since World War II are. "A new Quinnipiac survey just dubbed him the worst president in six decades," writes human Drudge link algorithim Paul Bedard. "President Obama has topped predecessor George W. Bush in another poll," reports USA Today, "but not one he would like." It's a perfect news story, one that cheers conservatives and causes panic in the ulcer-prone liberal readership.

Well, it's true. Quinnipiac asked 1,446 registered voters the question. The party breakdown: 26 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, 35 percent independent. Two-thirds of the Republicans and one-third of the Democrats called Obama the worst president since World War II. The result: Thirty-three percent of voters say he's the worst, and only 28 percent say George W. Bush is. And 35 percent of voters say Ronald Reagan was the best president. Hence the headline. 

On just these narrow questions, Democrats have a unique problem. They like several presidents, and they dislike several. They dilute their votes. So you have 34 percent of Democrats calling Bill Clinton our best-post FDR president, 18 percent saying that of JFK, 18 percent saying that of Barack Obama. But 66 percent of Republicans give the honors to Ronald Reagan. That, plus his support from one-third of independents, rockets him to the top of the poll.

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It's a similar picture on the "worst" side. In 2006, George W. Bush easily won the "worst president" poll (34 percent of people gave him the no-prize) because independents had turned against him, and because Democrats overwhelmingly had. But Republicans were split. Overall, 13 percent of voters called Jimmy Carter the worst post-World War II president, and 16 percent said that of Bill Clinton. This year, only 8 percent call Carter the worst, and only 3 percent say that of Clinton. Those voters have learned to loathe Barack Obama.

Once you process the old results, this poll looks like most polls in 2014—the president has lost independents, and voters have stopped hating George W. Bush so much. (He paints so well!) If you look at the crosstabs, the percentage of people calling Obama "honest and trustworthy" has actually stabalized and risen since 2013; the percentage calling him a strong leader, also stable.

If you ask me, the truly humiliating number for Democrats comes later, when by a 45–38 margin voters say "the nation would be better off" had Mitt Romney won the presidency. Someone at the White House is reading that, then stewing about how it was just a month ago that the job market returned to its 2008 peak, then bouncing a tennis ball against the way with increasing force and fury.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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