The question of ‘most popular president’ is not one that can be simply answered. Throughout one term, public opinion of the POTUS can vary drastically. One could endlessly discuss the intricacies of the electoral systems and the potential failure to reveal an accurate reading of public opinion. Indeed there are plenty of presidents who won the popular vote and didn’t win the election for president. And there were those candidates who were exceedingly popular at the time of their election and are not necessarily regarded, in posterity, as the most successful or favoured presidents. Over time, polls have placed certain American presidents – like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan – as the country’s all-time favourites, while with hindsight others have garnered some bad feeling. For example, a Gallup poll stated that only 2% of Americans regard George W. Bush as the country’s greatest president, and only 1% granted Richard Nixon the title. So, while these presidents were popular enough to have landed the oval office, their consequent actions mean they’re remembered less than fondly by many.
The presidential election is necessarily polarising, as is the historical assessment of these leaders. With the benefit of retrospect, though, it is objectively useful to see which presidents had the greatest public popularity at that rose-tinted, innocent time of their election. The best way to capture which presidents received the most support from the American public is to look at the popular vote. The popular vote is the vote for a U.S. president made by the voters themselves, rather than by the electoral college. Overall, it represents the candidate most popular among the average Joes. There are those rare times when the winner of the popular vote does not in fact win the presidency; George W. Bush, for example, lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000, but won the electoral college vote. However, for the purposes of this list we’re looking at those who did, indeed, serve as U.S. presidents – and we’re ranking them by how much of the popular vote they received.
10. Andrew Jackson, 1828: 55.93% of popular vote
American readers will likely recognize Andy from the $20 bill. One reason for his relatively large percentage of the popular vote is that he ran for President as a sort of ‘everyman’, with his slogan “let the people rule.” Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812, and was lauded especially for his defeat of Britain at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s presidency also marks the beginning of the two party system, as political beliefs began to polarize around him. Jackson used his federal power with gusto; for example, when South Carolina refused to overthrow the tariff, Jackson sent armed forces to Charleston. Fun Fact: he had a pet parrot named Poll.
9. Theodore Roosevelt, 1904: 56.42% of popular vote
Taking office at the age of 43, Theodore Roosevelt remains the youngest United States President in history. Roosevelt focused heavily on foreign policy, often reciting the slogan: “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He solidified construction of the Panama Canal and even won a Nobel Peace Prize for his intercession in the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, he was the first American to win this prestigious award. Teddy Roosevelt is also known for his work in conservation, as he added to national forests in the West, facilitated irrigation projects and created land reservations. And he famously invited Booker T. Washington to dinner, making Washington the first black man invited to dine at the White House.
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1956: 57.37% of popular vote
Dwight D. Eisenhower was America’s 34th president. He was a general in Europe during World War II, commanding the Allied forces. In fact, he was actually led the D-Day invasion and was made a five star general. Eisenhower won a sweeping victory for president with his memorable slogan “I like Ike”, with over 60% of the U.S. public turning out to vote. Of those voters, almost 58% were in favour of Eisenhower. Once in office, Eisenhower tried to ameliorate the tension from the Cold War. On the home front, Eisenhower ordered complete desegregation of the Armed Forces and sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to facilitate measures towards desegregation in schools. Fun fact: he was the last president to be born in the nineteenth century.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932: 57.41% of popular vote
Franklin D. Roosevelt, America’s 32nd President, took on the Presidency at the peak of the Great Depression. His famous words from his inaugural address hoped to quell the people’s anguish, stating, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In Roosevelt’s first 100 days, he created vast numbers of programs hoping to revitalize business and agriculture, and to lower the extremely high unemployment rate. He also spearheaded Social Security and other social measures that imposed heavier taxes on wealthy citizens. While Roosevelt did keep America out of World War Two until 1941, he supported Great Britain with military aid. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, FDR sent American forces to join the global war. Interestingly, he held the record for number of times meeting the press: 998 times.
6. Herbert Hoover, 1928: 58.21% of popular vote
Herbert Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. A Republican, Hoover promised the American people that he would work to conquer world hunger and poverty. In a key plot twist, however, the stock market crashed not long after his election to office. In the aftermath, Hoover did cooperate with Congress to pass laws aiding local farmers and expanding public works. Yet, Hoover is often seen as a “scapegoat for the Depression” since his efforts to relieve the suffering the crash caused were largely ineffective. Many homeless people built makeshift houses which they called, scathingly, “Hoovervilles.” Despite his original popularity, Hoover was ultimately viewed rather negatively by the American people. Hoover approved the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem, and it became official in 1931.
5. Ronald Reagan, 1984: 58.77% of popular vote
Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, is often known for his classically conservative economic policies. He took charge of the tax code, and by the end of his administration, the nation had the longest recorded period of peacetime economic success without recession. Abroad, Reagan’s motto was “peace through strength.” He gave a great deal of support to anti-Communist insurgencies in Africa and Asia, and some refer to his time in office as the “Reagan Revolution.” Some trivia about this president: Reagan has appeared in 53 movies and hosted 2 popular TV shows! In historical rankings, however, Reagan has consistently polled one of the least popular U.S. presidents of all-time -likely due to the many scandals that marked his administration.
4. Warren G. Harding, 1920: 60.32% of popular vote
Harding espoused traditional Republican values; he worked to slash taxes, create a Federal budget system, and limit immigration. His campaign slogan accurately reflected these conservative views: “less government in business and more business in government.” In 2013, New York Times journalist Nate Silver composed a list of the nation’s most and least effective Presidents, based on popular opinion. This listing ranked Harding just barely above last place, at number 41 of 43 previous US Presidents. Curiously, it seems, popular vote does not always reflect the overall popularity of the president both in office and years later. An interesting fact about Harding? He had the largest feet of any president: size 14!
3. Richard Nixon, 1972: 60.67% of popular vote
Richard Nixon’s presidency was tumultuous, but not without its successes. During his time in office, Nixon ended American involvement in the Vietnam War and improved relations with China and the USSR. He passed new anti-crime laws, and, as he had promised, appointed notably conservative justices of the Supreme Court. Nixon’s time in office is also famous for the Watergate scandal. Though Nixon denied his involvement in the fiasco, he ultimately chose to resign from his position as President. Nixon was on the cover of Time Magazine 56 times, more than any other person.
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936: 60.80% of popular vote
Yup, he’s back. As you may notice, upon his second election in 1936, Roosevelt’s percentage of the popular vote increased. Roosevelt’s New Deal had boosted his prestige among voters, and he is still the President to serve the most consecutive terms. (And this is a record unlikely to be broken, since after his death, a law was passed that said a President could not be in office for more than two terms.) Roosevelt is one of those who survived popular vote while going on to survive the judgement of the history books; he consistently polls as one of America’s most popular presidents of all time.
1. Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964: 61.05% of popular vote
Lyndon B. Johnson was the 36th president of the United States, and was sworn into office in November of 1963 after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He went on to run in 1964 and – as his ranking in this list demonstrates – he won overwhelmingly. LBJ is often remembered for his shortcomings regarding the Vietnam War. Despite his attempts to end communist aggression, he is often associated with the escalation of violence abroad, even if his ultimate goal was a peaceful one. However, back at home, LBJ did much to enhance the already growing Civil Rights Movement. He also can be credited with passing the 1965 Medicare amendment to aid the Social Security Act, under which millions of elderly people gained important assistance.
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