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The best and worst of modern presidents

Among post-World War II presidents, who ranks #1? Who ranks dead last? A new poll offers a little partisan grist for the mill, but little else.
President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, April 25, 2013.
President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, April 25, 2013.
Quinnipiac has a poll that seems custom-made to generate chatter in the political world, but the closer one looks, the more it seems the results offer more heat than light.

A plurality of voters think Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II, a new poll says. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 33 percent of voters think the current president is the worst since 1945. Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, came in at second-worst with 28 percent, and Richard Nixon was in third place with 13 percent of the vote. After Jimmy Carter, who 8 percent of voters said was the worst president in the time period, no other president received more than 3 percent.

I haven't monitored broadcast media too closely this morning, so I can't say for sure how much attention this has received, but it's already getting quite a bit of attention online and in conservative media.
And at first blush, it's easy to see why. Twelve people have served as president in the post-WWII era and here we have a national survey from a credible pollster suggesting that a plurality of Americans see Barack Obama as the very worst of the bunch.
And given that this bunch includes George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, ranking dead last isn't easy.
But before folks get too excited about the poll, it's worth taking a closer look at the results. Indeed, it's worth making some charts.
In this new poll, respondents were given the list of the 12 modern presidents and then asked to choose the best one. Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans answered the question very differently.
I put together this chart for every president that scored 5% or greater in responses from voters in either party. Democratic voters tended to distribute their votes broadly, with Clinton, Kennedy, and Obama each reaching double digits, while 66% of Republicans backed Reagan. GOP voters largely ignored the rest of the list.
So when we look at the overall results and see Reagan in the #1 slot, it's the result of a simple dynamic: Democrats split their vote and Republicans didn't. (Indeed, among all 20th century presidents, there's really only one president GOP voters celebrate, while Democrats tend to see a variety of presidential heroes.)
Then consider what happened when the same poll asked respondents to choose the worst president.
I put together this chart to highlight a simple truth: Democratic voters again divided their votes, split between Bush and Nixon, while Republican voters overwhelmingly chose Obama. As with Reagan, this partisan slant tilts the overall results.
In other words, what this poll tells us is that Republicans really love Reagan and really hate Obama.
I'm pretty sure we knew that already.
It's a fun parlor game for historians and political junkies to rank presidents -- I have my own list in mind, and readers are encouraged to share their rankings in the comments section -- and it's hardly surprising that polls like Quinnipiac's add fuel to the fire. But to see the results as offering key insights into public attitudes and/or the merits of Obama's presidency is a mistake.
* Update: Details like these matter: "Pollsters have been asking some variant of this question for over 15 years, and the person occupying the Oval Office at the time the question is asked always finishes at or near the top of the 'worst president' rankings.... In 1998, ABC News asked respondents which president had done the worst job in their lifetimes. Clinton and Reagan finished at a near tie for second, behind (you guessed it) Richard Nixon."
This poll really is "worthless" and "useless."
I'm not sure which is more irresponsible: Quinnipiac, for putting such a pointless survey in the field, or media professionals who are pretending the results are important.