PRINCETON, NJ -- Ahead of Presidents Day 2011, Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation's greatest president -- slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Reagan, Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy has been at the top of this "greatest president" list each time this question has been asked in eight surveys over the last 12 years.
Presidents Day, celebrated on the third Monday of February each year, officially commemorates the Feb. 22 birthday of George Washington. The country's first president is not regarded by Americans as the nation's greatest president, however. Gallup's Feb. 2-5 update shows that Washington comes in fifth on the list, behind Reagan, Lincoln, Clinton, and Kennedy.
In the eight times Gallup has asked this same "greatest president" question over the last 12 years, one of three presidents -- Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy -- has topped the list each time. Reagan was the top vote getter in 2001, 2005, and now 2011. Lincoln won in 1999, in two 2003 surveys, and in 2007. Kennedy was on top in 2000, and tied with Lincoln in November 2003.
Americans as a group have a propensity to mention recent presidents, not surprising given that the average American constantly hears about and from presidents in office during their lifetime, and comparatively little about historical presidents long dead. Four of the five most recent presidents are in the top 10 greatest presidents list this year -- Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan.
Reagan Tops Among Republicans, Clinton Among Democrats
Americans clearly evaluate presidents through partisan lenses -- with Democrats and Republicans each most likely to choose a greatest president within their own party. Republicans name Reagan substantially more than anyone else, followed by Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and then George W. Bush. Democrats are most likely to say that Clinton was the greatest U.S. president, followed by Kennedy, Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Independents name Lincoln and then Reagan as top choices.
Roosevelt on Top 55 Years Ago
The results of a Gallup poll conducted some 55 years ago show how these rankings can change over time. In 1956, Gallup asked Americans to name the top three greatest presidents. The top vote getter at that time was Franklin Roosevelt, who had died only 11 years previously. Roosevelt was followed by Lincoln, Washington, and Dwight Eisenhower, the incumbent president at the time of that poll.
Americans' views on the topic of great presidents appear to have coalesced around three presidents: Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy. One of these three has been at the top of the list in each of eight surveys conducted since 1999.
This "greatest president" question is open-ended, meaning that respondents are asked to name a president off the top of their head. This type of measurement tends to increase the mention of recent presidents. Democrats, for example, are most likely to name Clinton -- the most recent Democratic president not currently in office -- as greatest. Republicans, in slightly different fashion, tend to skip over the two most recent Republican presidents, the two Bushes, and instead are most likely to choose Reagan.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 2-5, 2011, with a random sample of 1,015 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 200 cell phone-only respondents and 800 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit https://www.gallup.com/.