Nearly half the country say Mandela is "Great"

December 11, 2013, 2:06 PM GMT+0

Nearly half of Americans say that Nelson Mandela was 'great', though Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say that he was 'great'.

On Tuesday, President Obama hailed Nelson Mandela as the “great liberator” of the twentieth century. Nearly half of America in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll would also call Nelson Mandela, former prisoner and the first post-apartheid President of South Africa, “great.” Three out of four describe him as “great” or “near-great.”

In that poll, conducted after Mandela’s death last week at the age of 95, Americans were asked to judge more than two dozen global politicians, religious figures, scientists and other leaders. Mandela drew almost universal respect.

Two other political leaders – Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian people to independence from Great Britain, and much like Mandela fought for the rights of those oppressed by government and tradition, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the American civil right leader, scored just about as high as Mandela did. Thomas Edison, the inventor, also is in that group.

Mother Teresa, who has been beatified by the Vatican, and, like Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is described as “great” by similar percentages of Republicans, Democrats and political independents. That is an exception. Democrats tend to be more willing than Republicans to describe all five of these other individuals as great. The margin is small for Edison and Einstein, and is especially wide for King and Mandela. Democrats are 31 points more willing than Republicans to say Dr. King was a great man; and 42 points more likely to say that about Mandela.

Adding in “near-great,” however, finds two-thirds of Republicans describing Mandela and Gandhi as great or near great; more than eight in ten Republicans put Martin Lither King in those categories.

Religious figures and those from outside American electoral politics do much better than American Presidents, who are viewed through political lenses. John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt are more than twice as likely to be seen as great by Democrats as by Republicans. Ronald Reagan receives even more polarized ratings: 61% of Republicans call him great; just 10% of Democrats do.

More recent Democratic Presidents, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are less likely to be described as “great,” and then almost exclusively by those who identify with their political party. Only a third of Democrats describe each of those men as “great.” Only 3% of Republicans say Clinton is great; even fewer say that about the current President.

Dwight Eisenhower was not just a Republican President, but he was also the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. Nearly a third of the public regards him as “great,” and nearly as many Democrats as Republicans say that.

Current technology leaders don’t come anywhere near Edison or Einstein in public adulation: 32% describe Bill Gates as “great,” and 29% say that about Steve Jobs. Henry Ford is described as great by 23%. More – 39% – would put Helen Keller in that category.

Billy Graham, the Protestant evangelist, is only seen as “great’ by 28% of the country overall, the same percentage who put Pope John Paul II in that category. But a third of those who think Graham is a great man rank him above all the others suggested in the poll. He ranks at the top of the list, just behind with Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, and Albert Einstein, and with Mandela, Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt, when Americans were asked to choose among those they regarded as great, and name the “greatest.”

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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