Partisan Bias in Presidential Rankings?

Presidential ranking polls communicate far more than an ordered list of names; they communicate the leadership qualities our nation values. Given this, the results of presidential ranking polls have been a source of contention. One recurrent concern is that the academic raters surveyed in the polls, who tend overwhelmingly to be partisan Democrats, may favor some presidents over others. This study looks for evidence of a partisan bias in the ranking polls. Concentrating on the modern presidency, we find that presidential partisanship is a potent predictor of rank; academic raters consistently rank Democratic presidents ten places higher on average than Republican presidents. We also compare the rankings from academics to rankings from non-academics and show that academic raters favor Democratic presidents more than non-academic raters. Our findings suggest, in accordance with previous literature, that partisan attachment affects the subjective judgments that presidential ranking polls inherently require.

From a forthcoming paper by Joseph Uscinski and Arthur Simon.  This is based on a study of presidents from McKinley through George W. Bush.  See the paper for why they focus on these more modern presidenets.

Uscinski and Simon show that academics surveyed by C-SPAN rate Democratic presidents more favorably, and Republican presidents less favorably, than a sample of C-SPAN viewers (see table 2 of the paper).  Similarly, a 2005 Wall Street Journal survey of academics, which weighted the results of self-identified liberal and conservative academics equally, and found less evidence of any pro-Democratic bias (see the Appendix Table 2).  They suggest that both of these findings could be due to partisan bias and, yes, they do discuss some alternative explanations.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  • Uscinski and Simon examine both ratings and rankings.  I’m glad.  I’ve posted before on why ratings are better than rankings.
  • Given all of our posts on partisan bias—and the evidence that even “experts” are not immune to such biases—  I am fully prepared to believe that academics who rank presidents are similarly afflicted.
  • I am a little concerned that even relatively knowledgeable C-SPAN viewers may simply be using somewhat different criteria than academics to judge presidents—and not simply because of differences in partisanship.  What if C-SPAN viewers simply have different perceptions of, say, the actual powers of the president?  Or of specific historical cases?  I am thinking here of Bryan Caplan’s research.  Here’s a quick summary:
Compared to experts in American politics, the public greatly overestimates the influence of state and local governments on the economy, the president and Congress on the quality of public education, the Federal Reserve on the budget, Congress on the Iraq War, and the Supreme Court on crime rates.  The public also moderately underestimates the influence of the Federal Reserve on the economy, state and local governments on public education, and the president and Congress on the budget.  While we are open to the possibility that non-cognitive factors explain observed belief gaps, controlling for demographics and various measures of self-serving and ideological bias does little to alter our results.
  • Of course, Caplan’s findings don’t necessarily mean that partisan bias isn’t operative here.  It’s just challenging to separate it from other biases.
  • Looking at all the American presidents, and all the extant expert rankings, I’m struck by how generally similar they are.  Wikipedia has a table here.  Again, there could still be partisan bias present, but there is a general consensus about many presidents.

Ultimately, I remain somewhat dubious about the entire enterprise of ranking presidents, but that is not material to this paper.  I’d encourage C-SPAN to do a lot more to improve the way that it measures presidential greatness, and thinking about partisan bias should be part of that.


One Response to Partisan Bias in Presidential Rankings?

  1. sdu754 July 26, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    To see bias in these rankings you have to look no farther than Kennedy at 6th! What did he do that was so great to deserve this ranking. His foriegn policy was abysmal! He changed course in Vietnam, The failed Bay of Pigs invasion, He allowed the Cuban missile crisis to happen in which he got the US closer to nuclear destruction than any other president, and then he gave up the trident missiles in Turkey. While he was a decent in domestic policy, mainly by not changing from Eisenhowers policies, he did less than any other President from Truman to Nixon for civil rights. I don’t see how any unbiased historian could seriously rank him in the top half of Presidents.

    Other anomolies in the C-SPAN 2009 pole
    moral Authority
    Wilson 6th — Wilson had a terrible record on human rights. He vigorously opposed women’s suffarage, imposed segregation into the federal government, and backed the souths rights to deal with race issues on thier own without interference by Washington. He also trampled on free speech with the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. He used both laws to arrest political prisoners who disagreed with him.
    Jackson 14th –illegally removed native americans from the south east in what has become known as the trail of tears, directly in opposition to the supreme court. Jackson’s administration also condoned the stealing and destruction of anti slavery mail. He created the spolis system, which created to a culture of corruption in gvernment.
    Economic Management
    FDR 1st–his economic policies completely failed in 1940 the US still had an unemployment rate of 15%
    Wilson 6th–He left the country with a 9% unemployment and a declining GDP
    Harding 36th–He quickly fixed the Wilson recession dropping unemployment to 5% in two years.
    Persued Equal Justice for all
    Grant 18th–he fought for African American rights and Native American rights when it was very unpopular to do so.
    Harding 37th–he actually went to the south and spoke out against Jim Crow laws
    Wilson 20th & Jackson 32nd–somehow above Harding? see moral Authority

    These pools also don’t take into accountability how much each survey particapant knows about each individual president. For example a historian of the modern presidency (FDR to Present) might not know much about the majority of the 19th century presidents. So how do they go about ranking those president? Do they take the time to research each individual president thoroughly? Probably not! They will either look to past pools and make a few adjustments, or read a generalized history book that discusses several presidents. The problem with such books is that they can easily skew the facts about any president since they will only have time to discuss them in a few pages.

    For an easy to understand example lets look at Clinton. He could be characyerized in two totally opposite ways.
    Positive: Economic prosperity during his entire term, relative peace (no majar wars, and only a few minor skirmishes)balanced budgets & welfare reform. It could also be argued that the whole Monica Lewinsky Scandal was only about sex and was an attermpt by his political opponents to “get him”
    Negative: He inherited a booming economy from Bush and rode it out. His poor leadership led to the Republicans taking control of congress in 1994 for the first time since the 40s. He co-opted the most popular parts of the contract with America from republicans, including welfare. He did reduce deficits, but it was because of spending caps put in by Bush, and the budget never really balanced (every year Clinton was president the total US debt went up, check search historic total US debt if you don’t believe me) Giving China most favored nation trade status at the end of his term severely hurt the manufacturing sector. He gutted the Intelligence agencies before both 911 and Iraq war. Repeal of Glass-steagal helped lead to the housing collapse in 2008. He caused a constitutional crisis by lying about his affair with Lewinsky, he simply didn’t have to answer the question. In doing so he commited purgury and obstructed justice (He asked her to lie as well) and should have been removed from office.
    Clearly the tone historians use to write about Clinton could greatly affect his rankings.