Historical Favorability Ratings of Presidents

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

In addition to asking Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the job a president is doing, Gallup also regularly measures their views more generally by asking if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the president. Typically, the two measurements are related, but as was the case during the Clinton presidency, the public can often approve of the president's job but not think highly of the president as a person. More often than not, the reverse is true. People may still view the president favorably even if they have somewhat negative views of his performance.

Gallup currently evaluates Americans' basic view of presidents using a question that simply asks them whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the president. Gallup adopted this scale in 1992, allowing only a limited ability to make historical comparisons.

Before 1992, Gallup Poll respondents rated presidents on a 10-point scale that ranged from "+5" at the high end to "-5" at the low end (there is no zero point on this scale). These are known as "scalometer ratings," and Gallup began using them in 1956. To maintain valuable historical comparisons, Gallup periodically obtains ratings on modern presidents using this numerical rating scale. For example, in the July 18-20 Gallup Poll, Americans rated George W. Bush on this scale. Sixty-seven percent gave Bush a positive rating, and 32% a negative rating.

Historical Ratings of Presidents

Americans consistently rate presidents much more favorably than unfavorably on the scale. A review of all scalometer ratings finds not a single instance in which a president has received more negative than positive evaluations while in office. In October 1975, however, a little more than a year after he resigned the presidency, 71% rated Richard Nixon unfavorably and 27% rated him favorably. (No ratings of Nixon were taken in 1974, the year he resigned.)

The following table shows the average favorable (ratings of "+1" to "+5") and unfavorable ratings (scores of "-1" to "-5") for each president during their terms.

Scalometer Ratings of Presidents, Eisenhower to George W. Bush

 

 

President

 

Average % Favorable

 

Average % Unfavorable

 

Number of Ratings

Average Job Approval Rating

Eisenhower

84%

12%

13

65%

Kennedy

88%

10%

2

70%

Johnson

77%

20%

10

55%

Nixon

80%

18%

8

49%

Ford

73%

24%

5

47%

Carter

70%

27%

10

45%

Reagan

70%

27%

12

53%

George H.W. Bush

73%

25%

4

61%

Clinton

56%

43%

4

55%

George W. Bush

67%

32%

1

68%

With the exception of the two most recent presidents, every other president averaged at least a 70% favorable rating. However, the average ratings of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on the numerical scale are similar to their average ratings on the newer, post-1992 favorability scale for which there are more readings and thus a more stable average. Bush has averaged a 70% favorable rating on the newer scale since taking office, and Clinton averaged a 57% favorable rating while president.

[NOTE: In a slightly different context, scalometer ratings of countries tend to be significantly more positive than the basic favorable/unfavorable wording question, so the two scales do not always produce similar results. Additionally, Gallup ratings of presidents prior to 1990 were generally obtained by face-to-face interviews, whereas the more recent ratings are collected through telephone interviewing. It is not clear if this difference in methodology affects the comparability of earlier and later results.]

John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower had the highest average favorability ratings of 88% and 84%, respectively. However, Kennedy's average is based on just two ratings. These two men also had the highest average job approval ratings for their terms (George W. Bush has averaged 68% so far for his presidency, slightly above Eisenhower's final average of 65%).

Of all presidents, Clinton was rated the least positively, with only about 6 in 10 giving him a favorable rating, including two readings from the fall of 1994 when his positive ratings barely exceeded his negative ratings. In fact, the 51% favorable scores he received in September and October 1994 are the lowest single ratings Gallup recorded for a sitting president, bearing in mind that no measurements were taken during the scandal-plagued part of the Nixon presidency.

Aside from the two most recent presidents, all other presidents averaged between 70% and 80% on the scalometer. Nixon's 80% average largely resulted from the fact that only one rating was taken during his second turbulent term -- a 56% favorable and 41% unfavorable rating in August 1973, a year before he resigned.

Lyndon Johnson averaged a 77% favorable rating while president, including a 90% reading in May 1965, near the beginning of his elected term. In 1967, several months before he declined to run for re-election, the public still rated Johnson more positively than negatively on the scale, with 63% giving him favorable ratings and 38% unfavorable.

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all average in the low to mid-70s on the favorability scale, despite below-average approval ratings while president. The elder Bush had a higher average approval rating than Ford, Carter, and Reagan, but received similar average scalometer ratings.

Highly Favorable Ratings

Eisenhower had the highest individual scalometer rating of 91% favorable, which he accomplished twice. The first time was in February 1956, the year he was re-elected as president, and the second was in January 1957, as he was being inaugurated to a second term. The 1957 reading included a "highly favorable" rating ("+4" and "+5" on the scalometer) of 72%, the only time a president exceeded 70% high favorability. In fact, in only five instances has a president received 60% or more Americans rating them as highly favorable on this scale. Eisenhower achieved this three times in 1956 and once in 1957, and Kennedy did so in January 1962.

Average Highly Favorable Ratings of Presidents Using Scalometer, Eisenhower to George W. Bush

President

Highly Favorable Ratings

Number of Ratings

Eisenhower

57%

13

Kennedy

58%

2

Johnson

41%

10

Nixon

42%

8

Ford

25%

5

Carter

25%

10

Reagan

33%

12

George H.W. Bush

32%

4

Clinton

22%

4

George W. Bush

34%

1

When looking just at presidents' average highly favorable ratings, the general patterns are similar to what the total favorable ratings show, though there are a few exceptions. Kennedy and Eisenhower still rate at the top of the list, but their margin over other presidents is larger when focusing only on the highly favorable ratings.

These data also indicate that Reagan and the elder Bush were rated more positively than Carter and Ford were, while the total favorable ratings would suggest these four presidents were evaluated similarly.

The data also show an unmistakable trend with declining percentages of highly favorable ratings over time. All four pre-Watergate presidents exceeded 40% highly favorable ratings, while none of the six post-Watergate presidents have done so.

Summary

Americans tend to rate presidents positively in general terms, even if they sometimes give much lower ratings to the president's handling of his job. President Bush's general ratings are about average when compared to earlier presidents. His average 70% favorable rating on the newer scale is in line with earlier presidents' scalometer ratings, and his current 67% scalometer rating was taken at a time when his job approval is about 10 points below his term average (59% compared to an average of 69%).

Kennedy and Eisenhower tended to be rated the most favorably of the post-World War II presidents. Clinton was generally rated significantly lower on this scale than other presidents -- even presidents who had lower job approval ratings than he did. The data do show a decreased likelihood for Americans to give presidents highly favorable ratings following the Nixon presidency. This could be due to an increased skepticism on the part of the public and media toward presidents following the Watergate scandal.

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