The Greatest Presidents


The Fall 1985 issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, had an article called, "Rating Presidents and Diplomats in Chief." In this article, Presidents are assessed.

In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. polled fifty-five prominent scholars in American history and government, and again in 1962 he asked seventy-five to rank Presidents within five categories - as great, near great, average, below average and failure. Another poll, conducted among nearly 850 members of the United States Historical Society in 1977, asked respondents to name the ten greatest Presidents. There were three other group polls in 1970, 1981, and 1982, and twelve more individual assessments discussed in that article. So, out of eighteen lists, the results were:

Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were on all 18 lists. Wilson and Jefferson were on 17 lists. Then Truman on 9, Polk on 7, John Adams on 6, Grover Cleveland on 5 and Kennedy on 2.

In 1956, the popular poll results were: Franklin Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, Eisenhower, Truman, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Jefferson.

In 1976, popular poll results were: Kennedy, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Washington, Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Jefferson, Wilson and Nixon.

Nowhere in that article were the election results, or voters’ opinions, considered.

The Electoral College

The Electoral College vote is the only measure by which all Presidents can be compared, but even that is flawed because electors had two votes until the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804.  Furthermore, some of the electors were chosen by state legislatures instead of voters until 1836, with the exception of South Carolina that did not choose its electors by popular vote until after the Civil War in 1860.

The Second Term

Not surprisingly, the highest percentage of Electoral votes were won by Presidents winning re-election: Roosevelt's second term - 98.49%; Monroe's second term - 98.3%; Washington's second term - 97.77%; Reagan's second term - 97.58%; Nixon's second term - 96.65%; Washington's first term - 94.52%; and Jefferson's second term - 92.05%. Then Reagan's first term, Lincoln's second term, and so on.

Conclusion, our greatest Presidents are the two-term Presidents. There have been seventeen two-term Presidents, twenty-two one-term Presidents, five Presidents who were never elected, and two people who were elected president but were never allowed to take office (Tilden and Gore).

        Popular Vote

        When popular vote is considered, the two-term presidents still remain our greatest presidents, although the order in the top tier moves around somewhat. The significance of popular vote is still unclear. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, two of the biggest winners in American history, were both forced from office. Interestingly, the first president to win with more than 60% of the popular vote was Warren G. Harding in 1920, the first election in which women had the right to vote. So, the thought experiment is this, how did the men know for 131 years, not to give any president more than 60% of the vote until women won the franchise? Of course, they could not know. But the question of how men “knew” not to give any candidate 60% until their better halves were enfranchised needs to be explored.

The Greatest Presidents

        The Institute of Election Analysis has devised a ranking that includes both Electoral and popular vote ever won by a candidate. Multiplying the two percentages together yields an election factor. For example, if a candidate wins 50% of the Electoral vote and 50% of the popular vote, .50 X .50 = .25  But if that candidate wins reelection by 50% electoral and 50%, then their total lifetime Electoral vote is 100% and total lifetime popular vote is 100%, so their factor is now 1. This election factor is magnified by candidates who win votes in more than one election. So, all the two-term presidents except for the Bush fils, exceed 1.[1]

The list of Presidents and their factors are:





Franklin Roosevelt



George Washington



Thomas Jefferson



Richard Nixon



Andrew Jackson



James Monroe



Grover Cleveland



Ronald Reagan



Dwight D. Eisenhower



Ulysses S. Grant



James Madison



Barack Hussein Obama



William McKinley



William J. Clinton



Woodrow Wilson



Abraham Lincoln



Herbert Hoover



George H. W. Bush



George W. Bush



William Henry Harrison



John Adams



Martin Van Buren



Theodore Roosevelt



Benjamin Harrison



James Earl Carter



William Howard Taft



Lyndon Baines Johnson



John Quincy Adams



Warren G. Harding



Franklin Pierce



Calvin Coolidge



James K. Polk



Harry Truman



John F. Kennedy



James Garfield



James Buchanan



Zachary Taylor



Donald J. Trump



Rutherford B. Hayes



Gerald Ford



Millard Fillmore



Andrew Johnson



John Tyler



Chester A. Arthur


Elected Offices: H= U.S. House, S= U.S. Senate, G=Governor, VP=Vice-President

Proof That This Election Analysis has Merit

Does this ranking of the Presidents ring true? Some might argue that Lincoln is too low, or Clinton is too high. Remember, these 44 people all reached the top of their profession, so they are all huge successes by any normal standard.

          On the other end of the scale, look at the five presidents who were never elected: John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur and Gerald Ford. What a collection of non-entities, especially compared with FDR, Washington, Monroe, and Ike. The ranking of those never elected is based on their performance with the voters prior to becoming president. (A special note of thanks is due to Ivan Trotsky of Takoma Park, Maryland; for his assistance in ranking the non-elected presidents.)

          Two presidents who ranked in the top ten with the voters, James Monroe and Ulysses Grant, did not appear on any of the expert lists. Why is Monroe so high on the list? His name is still attached to our foreign policy in Central and South America - the Monroe Doctrine. And Grant, when his administration was riddled with corruption? According to Geoffrey Perret's biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Grant virtually invented the modern army organization.

          This proves that being elected President is the source of much of the office's power. Electoral votes are the most important measure, although popular vote is a secondary standard. When selecting the most powerful person in the world, having two or more standards by which to judge is a safeguard.  So, George W. Bush, who lost the 2000 election but was awarded the office by clerical error, was responsible for the United States being attacked from abroad for the first time since 1812, launched two disastrous wars, and plunged the world into the worst economic crisis in seventy years.  These events followed directly from the Supreme Court picking the loser in the presidential race. The Electoral College was not the problem in the 2000 election, it was the solution; but Al Gore was too much of a coward, or an idiot, to fight for his victory with all the tools available.

          Similarly, Hillary Clinton who defeated Donald Trump by almost 3 million votes, could at least have made an attempt to persuade Trump’s electors to support the winner of the popular vote. Ignorance of civics is widespread. According to a 2014 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, one-third of adults could name all three branches of government, but another third could not name a single one.  Even if Gore and Clinton had lost in their attempt to get the electors to choose the highest vote getter in the election, the exercise would have been a high profile, badly needed civic lesson.  The current debate on the College is based on woefully few facts and little understanding of its multifarious purposes. (See Trump’s Historic Victory above.)

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf

[1] George W. Bush’s factor excludes Florida in 2000 which he lost with the voters, but won by using the Supreme Court to stop the count, and by his brother, the Governor, to exercise his authority to request a recount in a close election. With Florida included, Bush’s factor is 1.0202, making him still the only two term president to do worse than a one term president, Herbert Hoover.