Is it really that surprising? The modern party’s geographic base consists of the same states that reacted to Lincoln’s election by seceding. Old grievances die hard.
This poll is circulating today among anti-Trumpers of various stripes as evidence of how completely the cult of Trump has taken over the GOP, but there’s less to it than meets the eye. Granted, it seems deeply insane to prefer Trump to Lincoln on any metric, but polls like this one that pit current pols against historical figures usually reflect a strong bias towards the current guy. Partly that’s due to the fact that Americans are momentarily invested politically and even emotionally in the current guy’s fortunes. And partly it’s due to simple ignorance. We’ve all seen those man-on-the-street interviews with dopes who don’t know who the vice president is and can’t name a single Supreme Court justice. If you asked 1,000 Americans at random to describe who Abraham Lincoln was in a few sentences, how many would deliver a serviceable thumbnail biography and list of his achievements? A quarter, maybe? Another 50 percent would know, hopefully, that he freed the slaves although not much else. The last quarter would be in the category of having to guess which century he was president in.
So ask a group of Republicans to choose between a candidate whom they voted for and whose decisions are influencing their lives right this minute versus a figure whom they know is widely regarded as great but the specifics of which many are hazy on and yeah, you’re going to get a tighter result than you might expect. Then add in the weird cultish X factor among some righties of feeling that they need to take Trump’s side in any dispute and here’s what you get:
YouGov also provided the numbers for different geographic regions. Among north, south, east, and west, want to guess which one had the weakest support for Lincoln over Trump? Hint: Old grievances die hard.
The people I really want to talk to are the six percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents who opted for Trump in this choice. Breaking news, bro: You can identify politically however you like, but if you’re opting for him over Abraham Lincoln, you’re a true blue full-blooded MAGA Republican. No sense living a lie.
YouGov polled Trump against other modern Republican presidents too and he topped each with ease — with one exception. The Bushes were no match for him, with Republicans preferring him by identical 71/29 margins against both father and son. He clobbered Nixon and Ford by taking more than 80 percent among GOPers in each hypothetical contest. He even beat Eisenhower, 65/35, a genuine travesty but a predictable outcome given how few Americans have firsthand memories of Ike. I should stress that all of these results reflect Republican opinion; among Democrats and even independents, every president tested (even Nixon) rated better than Trump by comfortable margins. Oh, and as for that one exception:
The GOP still retains a lot of affection for Reagan. I think Reagan’s in the sweet spot for polls like this, actually, in that he’s regarded as an objectively great president but also a president of whom many people have fond firsthand memories. When you’ve got big achievements *and* personal nostalgia working for you, you’re tough to beat. Trump’s not there yet.
Needless to say, the overwhelming support among Democrats here for every Republican president who isn’t Trump is itself partly a product of bias driven by the fact that Trump is the current officeholder. If you’ve been reading blogs like this one for a long time, no doubt you remember how intensely the left hated George W. Bush. Dubya’s the one who got America involved in Iraq and who presided over the Hurricane Katrina fiasco; his approval rating on Election Day 2008 was 28 percent. But ask Democrats today whom they prefer in a contest between Bush and Trump, who hasn’t started any major wars, and it’s no contest: 90/10. I repeat: NINETY TO TEN. Why? Because memories are short and because Dubya hasn’t posed a political or electoral risk to the left in more than a decade. It’s the current guy whom they’re threatened by, so he’s the worst by definition.
And yes, if you’re wondering, bias for or against the current officeholder shows up in other polls too. In 2011, Gallup asked Americans to name who they thought was the greatest U.S. president. The top three among Republicans were Reagan, Washington, and Lincoln, an obvious case of favoring a recent president but otherwise respectable. Democrats named … Bill Clinton, JFK, and then Obama. Franklin Roosevelt, the most consequential Democratic president of the last 100 years, finished fourth with just 10 percent. Imagine being given a menu of 43 presidents (at the time) and allowed to pick any one you like and choosing the Clenis. It’s a miracle that any presidents who served more than 15 years before the poll was taken rate in these surveys at all.
Exit question via Jonah Goldberg: Which MAGA super-fan pundit is going to write the inevitable op-ed about this poll insisting that, no really, Trump actually is a greater president than Lincoln? You’re allowed to take more than one guess. There’ll probably be more than one op-ed.