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11 Facts about Presidents and Approval Ratings

Published: August 17, 2017

Every day, Gallup Inc. fires up its phone banks and calls hundreds of Americans, asking them their opinions on social and political questions.

One of Gallup’s most closely watched polls is the rating of presidential job approval. Gallup has been conducting this poll continually since 1945. Each week, Gallup workers talk to 3,500 Americans (70 percent on cellphones, 30 percent on landlines) to ask, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [insert name here] is handling his job as president?”

Journalists, pundits, lobbyists, and politicians await the latest results, eager to spot trends or opportunities in America’s attitude toward its chief executive.

Here are some notable achievements in the field of presidential approval:

1. The Biggest Drop in Approval goes to Harry Truman. When he stepped in to complete President Roosevelt’s term in 1945, Truman had the approval of 87 percent of the country. Six years later, with the Korean War dragging on, rising inflation, unpopular price controls, and southern Democrats feuding with him, his approval had fallen to 22 percent.

2. Most Popular is George W. Bush, who achieved 90 percent approval in the days following the 9/11 attacks. It slipped to 58 percent over the next two years but shot up again, reaching 72 percent when the Iraq invasion was launched. His popularity experienced a long decline in his later years, when his approval rating fell to 29 percent. But then, popularity usually falls during second terms.

3. The Highest Average Approval for an Entire Term in Office goes to John F. Kennedy. On average, his daily approval rating was 70 percent. His popularity rating also shows the fewest sharp rises and falls of approval scores.

4. The Lowest Average Approval belongs to Jimmy Carter, at 47 percent.

5. The Graceful Exit Award: With just two exceptions, every president’s approval rating has dropped in the time between taking and leaving office. Those exceptions are Ronald Reagan (in at 53 percent, out at 63 percent) and Bill Clinton (in at 58 percent, out at 66 percent).

Approval is just half the story. Gallup also counts how many people disapprove of the president.

Note that an approval rating of 40 percent doesn’t mean 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the president. There is usually a buffer of “no opinion” holders.

Some presidents have had low approval scores without correspondingly high disapproval ratings.* For example, when Truman’s approval in the summer of 1950 hit 42 percent, his disapproval score was 32 percent, indicating 25 percent of Americans expressed no opinion. When that margin of grace shrinks, it can indicate fewer Americans are giving the president the benefit of their doubt.

6. The Highest Disapproval Rating goes to George W. Bush, who reached 71 percent.

7. The Lowest Disapproval Rating belongs to Harry Truman. Back when he was enjoying 87 percent approval, his disapproval score was just 2 percent.

8. The Biggest Rise in Disapproval goes to Richard Nixon, who went from 5 percent to 66 percent. Just as presidents’ approval ratings usually drop, every president’s disapproval rating has risen during his time in the White House — just not by this much.

9. The Lowest Approval/Highest Disapproval on Entering Office award goes to Donald Trump. Both scores were 45 percent.

10. The Highest Approval for a President’s First Three Months in Office, As Rated by Voters in His Own Party, is Barack Obama, who earned a 90 percent approval rating from Democratic voters.

The same award for a Republican president goes to George W. Bush; 88 percent of Republican voters gave him early approval.

11. The Most Divided Approval Ratings are for Donald Trump: During Trump’s first quarter as president, Republicans gave him an 87 percent approval; Democrats, 9 percent — a 78-point difference.

Naturally, presidents don’t enjoy high approval ratings from voters in the losing party, so there’s usually a partisan gap in scores.** When narrow, it indicates the president may have potential support from voters in the other party. For example, Dwight Eisenhower’s early approval score was 86 percent among Republicans and 61 percent among Democrats, a difference of only 25 points.

A widening gap reflects a loss of bipartisan support. During his first quarter, Ronald Reagan widened the partisan gap to a 41-point difference. With Clinton, it hit 51; George W. Bush, 61; Barack Obama, 60.

Presidential Approval and Disapproval Ratings

President Approval High/Low Scores Start/End Approval Scores Overall Average Approval Score Disapproval
Low/High Scores
Start/End Disapproval Scores Average Q1 Approval
Ratings of President’s Party/Opposition Party
Truman 87/22 87/32 56 2/66 2/64
Eisenhower 79/48 68/59 65 7/35 7/28 86/61
Kennedy 83/56 72/58 70 6/30 6/30 85/57
Johnson 79/35 78/49 55 2/52 2/37
Nixon 67/24 59/24 49 5/66 5/66 82/50
Ford 71/37 71/53 47 3/46 3/32
Carter 75/28 66/34 46 8/57 8/55 78/54
Reagan 68/35 51/63 53 13/52 13/29 83/42
Bush 89/29 58/56 61 6/59 6/37 78/41
Clinton 73/37 58/66 55 20/53 20/29 78/27
Bush 90/25 57/34 49 9/71 25/61 89/31
Obama 67/40 67/59 48 12/57 12/37 90/30
Trump (as of 8/16/17) 45/36 45/- 40 47/58 45/- 87/9

Article and chart data provided by Gallup, Inc.

 

*Disapproval data is from The American Presidency Project.

**Political division of voting data is from Huffington Post.

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  • Brenda Toomey

    Since the approval ratings are mentioned daily on many news stations, I appreciate learning how they are determined.

  • I still think Trump is not & can never be a true blue American US President. He’s a big mouth wheeler dealer who thinks he’s never lost anything! Yet?

  • Carolyn Lambert

    I don[t think approval/disapproval ratings are relevant. I would not answer a telephone poll for sure. You don’t know who you are really talking to.

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