'158 or 159 Presidential Historians' Voted Trump Worst President in US History?

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Claim:

U.S. President Joe Biden accurately claimed in the June 27, 2024, presidential debate with Donald Trump that "158 or 159 presidential historians" had voted Trump the worst president in U.S. history.

Rating:

Rating: Mostly True
Rating: Mostly True

What's True:

More than 150 academic experts in presidential politics voted Trump the worst president in U.S. history in a survey.

 

What's False:

The exact number of survey respondents was 154 (not 158 or 159), and only a small percentage of respondents were historians.

 

During the June 27, 2024, presidential debate on CNN, current U.S. President Joe Biden alleged that former President Donald Trump, his opponent in the debate, had been voted worst president in U.S. history:

Biden's exact quote, from the transcript, read as follows:

I wasn't joking. Look it up. Go online. 159 or 58, don't hold me the exact number, presidential historians. They've had meetings and they voted who's the worst president in American history. One through best to worst. They said he was the worst in all of American history. That's a fact. That's not conjecture. He can argue the wrong, but that's what they voted.

The claim had also previously appeared on X, and was picked up by several publications, including Axios, The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times.

Biden's claim is true, though the numbers, as he suggested, were inexact. The survey from the Presidential Greatness Project went out to 525 "social science experts in presidential politics, as well as scholars who had recently published peer-reviewed academic research in key related scholarly journals or academic presses" between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31, 2023. The survey yielded 154 responses, which determined Trump was the worst president in U.S. history — even accounting for the participants' political views.

The participants graded each president on a scale of 0 to 100 with 0 being failure and 100 being great. The scores were then averaged and ranked from highest to lowest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed the abolition of slavery, came in first. Franklin D. Roosevelt was second and George Washington third. With a score of of 62.66, Biden arrived 14th. Trump ranked 46th — the very last spot — with a score of 10.92:


(Presidential Greatness Project)

But there were large differences depending on the partisanship of those who responded to the survey. For example, Trump scored an average 6.97 points out of 100 with liberals, while conservatives gave him more points with 26.76 (still far below the average of 50). Moderates, meanwhile, gave him 14.21 points out of 100.

Trump did arrive first in one of the rankings of the survey: He was by far the most oft-cited in answer to the question, "Who is the most polarizing president?"

The scholars also voted on the most underrated president (Jimmy Carter) and most overrated (John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan narrowly shared that podium).

The survey started in 2015 as the initiative of Brandon Rottinghaus, of the University of Houston, and Justin Vaughn, of Coastal Carolina University. The 2024 poll was its third iteration.

Sources:

Baker, Sam. 'Read: Historians Rank Trump as Worst President'. Axios, 19 Feb. 2024, https://www.axios.com/2024/02/19/presidents-survey-trump-ranks-last-biden-14th.

Pengelly, Martin. 'Trump Ranked as Worst US President in History, with Biden 14th Greatest'. The Guardian, 20 Feb. 2024. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/feb/20/presidents-ranking-trump-biden-list.

Presidential Greatness Project. https://presidentialgreatnessproject.com/. Accessed 28 June 2024.

Vaughn, Justin, and Brandon Rottinghaus. 'Opinion: We Know How Voters Feel about Trump and Biden. But How Do the Experts Rank Their Presidencies?' Los Angeles Times, 18 Feb. 2024, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2024-02-18/trump-biden-presidents-day-ranking-poll-election-2024.

Updates:

July 1, 2024: The rating of this fact check was updated from True to Mostly True, based on new information about the makeup of the survey group and their academic specialties.