Ranking Presidents – Issues for the Religious Right, and the Rest of Us

This post attempts to rank Presidents by changes in issues important to the Religious Right: abortions, marriage and divorce, and single parents. This isn’t to say that these issues aren’t important to almost everyone else as well, but I don’t think I’m stereotyping members of the Religious Right by noting that many of them use one or more of these issues as part of a litmus test to determine how they should cast their ballot. Interestingly enough, those who oppose them on these issues generally hope for the same trends; those on both sides of the abortion issue, for instance, want to see fewer abortions – Bill Clinton famously declared he hoped abortion would one day be :”safe, legal and rare.” Similarly, most people can agree that society would probably be better off if marriages were more stable, or if more families grew up in two-parent households. That isn’t to say that both sides agree on how to get there, of course, so its interesting to see how the Presidents most favored by the Religious Right have produced on these issues.

The methodology used in this post is the same as in previous posts used to rank Presidents by Economic Growth, Fiscal Responsibility, and the growth rate of personal income, and the ownership economy.

Let’s begin with what may be the biggest lighting rod issue of them all over the last few decades… abortions. Here’s a line graph showing how abortions per thousand live births have evolved since 1975, 2 years after Roe v. Wade:

Notice that the rate increased dramatically from the beginning slowed around 1977 or so, and then peaked in 1982. Its been declining ever since. The source of the data, plus a bar chart showing that series (and a few others) broken out by President are here. Next, a chart ranking the Presidents:

I left out both the Nixon/Ford and GW administrations since only 2 years of data is available for each. Note that neither administration fares well by this measure.

The best performing President is Clinton. I note that in the two years since he left office, the rate of decrease of abortions per thousand live births has slowed, so this is not just a matter of catching a trend. Carter on the other hand, may well be a victim of time and circumstances.

Another fine morality related series deals with the net marriage rate… that is, the rate at which marriages exceed divorces. Folks on the Religious Right would like to see this number as high as possible – first, because that means either more marriages (i.e., fewer people, ahem, living in sin), fewer divorces, or some combination of both. Here’s a line graph showing what the series looks like:

The data before 1970 is spotty, but it does appear that the net marriage rate dropped in the 1950s, and rose a bit in the 1960s. Since then, the net marriage rate only seems to have risen briefly, dropping in most periods. The source of the data, plus a bit more information, can be found at this post. And now a summary of changes by Presidency – note that in an attempt to approximate the administration periods, data for Ike is for 1955 and 1960, and for JFK/LBJ its for 1960 and 1970. (Given the pattern observed, this should give the benefit of the doubt to Ike, and penalize JFK/LBJ slightly.) So here’s a summary:

The net marriage rate seems to have increased only under Carter and JFK/LBJ. It decreased the least under GW, followed by Clinton and Reagan. The biggest declines occurred under GHW and Nixon/Ford.

And now, children living in two parent households. Data is available for 1960, and then annually from 1967 forward.

Sadly, the series seems to have simply trended down, with only a flat areas and only one noticeable upward bump (from 1999 to 2000).

Here’s a summary:

The percentage of children in two parent households declined under every President. It declined the least under Clinton, followed by JFK/LBJ and Reagan. (Reagan follows slightly, but we’ll give him the tie.) The President who did the worst was Carter.

Now, let’s combine these rankings using a weighted average…

Overall, the administrations under whom the Religious Right should have been happiest were those of JFK/LBJ and Clinton. Aside from indicating that perhaps the Religious Right votes for the wrong candidates, what else can we learn from this? Well, these are also the two presidents with the fastest economic growth rates, and did best at measures of personal income. Wealthier people have more and better options. Additionally, both these administrations had a focus on the poorest individuals – JFK/LBJ had the War on Poverty, and Clinton famously felt people’s pain. But whenever Clinton and social issues are mentioned, inevitably someone insists credit belongs either to the Republican Congress or the Welfare Reform Act. So let’s take a moment and look at those claims, shall we?

First, on abortions… the annualized rate from 92 to 94, the last year before he took office, to the last year before the Republicans took Congress, the decline in the abortion rate per thousand live births declined 2.4% a year. For the remaining six years it declined 1.8% a year. And looking only at the post Welfare Reform Act… the decline remained at 1.8% a year. If the Welfare Reform Act had any effect at all, it is not discernible in the data. And if Newt and Company had any effect, it was to slow the decline in the rate of abortions.

What about the net marriage rate? Well, the net marriage rate stayed constant from 92 to 94, and from 92 to 96. Looking at the 94 to 00 period, the decline was 1.1% a year, and from the 96 to 00 period, it was 1.7% a year. Now, that said, we do see an improvement in the number of children living in two parent homes after the Welfare Reform Act was passed. This, together with the improving economy (it is said, after all, that the biggest cause of divorce in the US in money problems), seems to have provided an incentive to families to stay together when there were children involved.

So from this, we can conclude… if the Republican Revolution had an effect on any of these issues separate from the Welfare Reform Act, it was to arrest the decline in abortions. The Welfare Reform Act was a bit more mixed… it may not affected the rate of abortions per live birth, seems to have encouraged divorces (and/or discouraged marriages) when there were no children, and had the opposite effect when children were involved.

What about other Presidents? GW comes in third, but that’s probably a result of his record on abortion not being counted. My guess… when more data is available GW will plummet to a ranking more like those we’ve seen him occupy on most other series, namely at or close to the bottom. This would move Reagan up to a distant third – also something we’ve become accustomed to seeing on these series.

In any case, it seems to me that many folks on the Religious Right would be less likely to vote for the Presidents that did the best job of getting results in those areas important to them, and more likely to vote on those who did a poor job on their issues. Most voting theory seems to assume that people at least make some effort to vote on candidates likely to delivery on issues important to them. Clearly, this is not the case for a sizable segment of the US voting public.

Note… the sources of the data referenced above are in the posts to which I’ve linked.