Lincoln Resumes Position as Americans' Top-Rated President

by Lydia Saad

Reagan and Clinton lead among members of their respective parties

PRINCETON, NJ -- Since noted historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. declared Abraham Lincoln to be the country's best president in his 1948 poll of 55 historians, similar polls of scholars have consistently placed Lincoln among the top three presidents in U.S. history.

The American public agrees. In each of seven surveys Gallup has conducted on this topic since 1999, Lincoln has been one of the top three presidents named by Americans. Lincoln ranked first or tied for first in two 2003 Gallup Polls, but slipped into second place behind Ronald Reagan in 2005. Reagan enjoyed a surge of public esteem in 2005, left over from the publicity following his death the previous year.

According to a Feb. 9-11, 2007, Gallup Poll, Lincoln is back at No. 1 with Americans. Still, he holds this position based on responses from a fairly small percentage of the public. Eighteen percent of Americans today name Lincoln as the greatest U.S. president. He is closely followed by Reagan, with 16%, and John F. Kennedy, with 14%. Bill Clinton (13%) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (9%) round out the top five.

Americans Lean Toward Modern-Day Presidents

In general, however, Americans' conception of who is the nation's greatest president does not appear to be highly influenced by the pronouncements of academic experts; otherwise, one might expect more widespread public agreement that Lincoln was among the greatest. Also, academic rankings are top-heavy with other historical names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Andrew Jackson; none of these are at the top of Americans' rankings.

One of the more recent academic polls on presidents was conducted by The Wall Street Journal in 2005. In that poll, Washington was rated No. 1, followed by Lincoln and then Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington and Roosevelt also made the top three in Schlesinger's original poll.

Modern presidencies that people have experienced are more likely to be top-of-mind or impressive to the public than those learned about in history books. A majority of the responses to Gallup's survey are for presidents who have served in office since the 1930s, including Reagan, Kennedy, Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, and George W. Bush. Also, rather than focusing on the historians' favorites, Americans name a wide array of presidents, many of whom are mentioned by no more than 5% of Americans.

Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?

 

National
adults

Modern-day presidents
(served post-1930)

%

Ronald Reagan

16

John Kennedy

14

Bill Clinton

13

Franklin Roosevelt

9

Harry Truman

3

Jimmy Carter

2

Dwight Eisenhower

2

George W. Bush

2

Gerald Ford

1

George Bush (the elder)

1

Richard Nixon

*

63

Earlier presidents

Abraham Lincoln

18

George Washington

7

Theodore Roosevelt

2

Thomas Jefferson

2

29

Other

1

None

1

No opinion

6

* Less than 0.5%

By contrast, of the top three presidents on The Wall Street Journal poll's list, only one, Franklin Roosevelt, is from the modern period. Further down, Reagan, ranks 6 th, Truman 7 th, Eisenhower 8 th, George W. Bush 19 th, and Clinton 22 nd.

Clinton Tops With Democrats; Reagan No. 1 With Republicans

In addition to personal knowledge of and experience with a president, partisan politics also inform whom Americans consider to be the greatest. The top-rated presidents among Democrats are Clinton (mentioned by 25%) and Kennedy (20%). Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt tie for third among Democrats. Similarly, among Republicans, Reagan is No. 1, with a substantial 32% of all mentions. Lincoln ranks second with Republicans, followed by Kennedy, Washington, and George W. Bush.

More generally, the plurality of Republicans and Democrats name a president associated with their own political party. This affinity is 66% for Democrats and 47% for Republicans.

Only a small fraction of members of either party name a president of the opposing party (15% of Republicans and 6% of Democrats). About 3 in 10 Americans mention a president not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic Parties as they are defined today. This includes 21% of Democrats and about a third of Republicans.

Interestingly, while Lincoln ranks first overall, he does not rank first with the members of either political party. Rather, he is the second or third choice for both parties, which earns him the top spot when the views of all Americans are considered.

Greatest President, by Party ID
Sorted by Party/Historical Period of President

Feb. 9-11, 2007

National
adults

Republicans

Indepen-
dents

Democrats

Democratic presidents

%

%

%

%

John F. Kennedy

14

8

12

20

Bill Clinton

13

2

11

25

Franklin D. Roosevelt

9

2

10

15

Harry S. Truman

3

2

2

4

Jimmy Carter

2

1

2

2

41%

15%

26%

66%

 

 

 

 

Republican presidents

 

 

 

 

Ronald Reagan

16

32

16

4

Dwight D. Eisenhower

2

3

3

1

George W. Bush

2

6

2

*

Gerald R. Ford

1

2

*

1

George Bush (the elder)

1

3

*

0

Richard M. Nixon

*

1

1

*

22%

47%

22%

6%

 

 

 

 

Other presidents

 

 

 

 

Abraham Lincoln

18

22

18

15

George Washington

7

7

9

3

Theodore Roosevelt

2

2

4

1

Thomas Jefferson

2

1

2

2

29%

32%

33%

21%

* Less than 0.5%

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-11, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

3. Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?

 

2007
Feb
9-11

2005
Feb
7-10

2003 Nov
10-12

2003
Apr
5-6

2001
Feb
9-11^

2000
Feb
14-15^


1999
Feb

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

Abraham Lincoln

18

14

17

15

14

18

18

Ronald Reagan

16

20

13

10

18

11

12

John Kennedy

14

12

17

13

16

22

12

Bill Clinton

13

15

9

11

9

5

12

Franklin Roosevelt

9

12

11

9

6

12

9

George Washington

7

5

7

7

5

5

12

Harry Truman

3

2

3

4

6

3

4

George W. Bush

2

5

3

11

--

--

--

Theodore Roosevelt

2

2

3

2

2

3

3

Dwight Eisenhower

2

1

2

1

1

3

2

Thomas Jefferson

2

2

3

2

1

3

2

Jimmy Carter

2

3

3

3

4

3

3

Gerald Ford

1

--

*

--

*

--

--

George Bush (the elder)

1

1

2

2

3

3

5

Richard Nixon

*

1

1

1

1

2

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other

1

1

2

2

5

3

1

None

1

1

*

1

2

*

1

No opinion

6

3

4

6

7

4

2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Less than 0.5%

^ Asked of half sample

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