The Polls: Presidential Greatness as Seen in the Mass Public: An Extension and Application of the Simonton Model


Jeffrey E. Cohen is professor of political science at Fordham University. His most recent book, Presidential Responsiveness and Public Policy-Making, received the 1998 Richard E. Neustadt Award of the Presidency Research Group of the American Political Science Association.


I raise two questions in this article. In light of the scandals of the Clinton years, have the standards used to rate presidents changed or not? Second, do experts and informed citizens rate presidents similarly, and do they rely on the same criteria in their ratings? I use a C-SPAN poll administered in 2000 to experts, and through the Internet to the citizenry, as the data to address these questions. Results find great temporal stability in how presidents are rated. Furthermore, in applying a predictive model developed by Simonton, I find stability in the factors that predict presidential greatness ratings. In particular, experts and informed citizens rate presidents similarly and use similar criteria. Substantively, the most important and consistent predictor of presidential greatness is the number of years that the president served in office. This finding brings us full circle to a question that motivates much scholarship on the presidency: why do presidents get reelected for a second term?