Conservatives prefer Bill to Barack

It's surely a recency effect, but conservatives rate Obama lower than Bubba

By Thomas Schaller
December 14, 2009 10:15PM (UTC)
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A new poll from Public Policy Polling has some mostly unsurprising findings about how Americans rate the past five U.S. presidents, including incumbent Barack Obama. Ronald Reagan, whose name is legally required to be revoked every four minutes during Republican presidential primary debates, leads the pack, with 41 percent citing him as their most favorite of the five, ahead of Bill Clinton (27 percent) and Barack Obama (22 percent). The Bushes finished fourth and fifth, with W trailing his father.

Of course, Reagan's first-place finish may testify as much to the dissatisfaction with both Bushes, the only other Republicans in the small field, which consolidates the support of conservatives and many conservative-leaning moderates and independents behind one, obvious choice.


There's less clarity of choice among those on the other side of the spectrum when forced to pick from the sole two Democrats in the survey--and that split helps Reagan catapult into first. Indeed, the 47 percent sum of Clinton and Obama first-place shares is slightly more than Reagan's.

And the order of Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Bush41, Bush43 makes sense given their "exit poll" numbers, so to speak--their presidential approval ratings as they left office, which you can see here.

Then there is this little puzzler: According to PPP, Reagan is strong among independents and leads every other subgroup except "liberals and African Americans who choose Obama and moderates, Hispanics, and voters under 30 who choose Clinton."


Clinton is preferred to Obama by voters under 30? Whodathunkit? Anyway, here's how PPP explains the riddle:

The age results on the poll are interesting. Nobody who is under 30 now had the opportunity to vote for Clinton, but he was the President while they were growing up and they seem to look back on those days fondly. There seems to be a similar sentiment with the 30-45 demographic. None of them were able to vote for Reagan when he was first elected and few of them were for his reelection but he nevertheless beats Clinton 39-27 with that group. People seem to like the Presidents of their childhood.

It's weird that we would be so set in judgments or assocations made about presidents when we are teens or pre-teens. My first voting-age eligible election was 1988, so by this logic Reagan would rank first. But I rank him fourth, just ahead of W and behind Bush 41--who, for my money, remains, despite some things not to like about him, the least appreciated Republican president of the 20th century and certainly the least appreciated among this trio.

The only interesting thing about the results is that Obama is cited more often than Clinton as respondents' least favorite president, which testifies to the venom conservatives feel toward the current president, or perhaps a fading memory for how much they hated Clinton. Given how much they hated Clinton last decade, it's hard to believe they are wishing he rather than Obama were in the Oval Office right now.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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