Paper: Presidential Personalities & Success

This was the final paper for my Presidential Primaries, Nominations, & Elections class. In it I study the impact of a President’s personality type on his electoral and governing success. I really liked the idea of the paper, but my professor rightly dinged me for not having enough data to support the conclusions I ended up drawing. (Such things are hard when you only have 43 samples to look at!)


The Presidency of the United States. It is the single most powerful office in the world, and men as varied as our country can produce have wielded it. Their leadership styles and decisions in office ranged from unyielding and outrageous to laid-back and utterly conventional — with every combination in between. Yet every one of them was influenced by their personal traits and life before office, and a study of these personalities is sure to educate: if certain traits are common to our failed or venerated leaders, surely we should look for them in future contenders. As documented by Lyons, scholars have attempted such works before, but there are difficulties: personality typing is still an unsure science, and its application to presidential theory has been contested. Nonetheless, the study of personality is growing and I present new data compilations here.

Our presidents have also come into power through different (and ever-changing) selection systems, and an evaluation of these systems should help in determining their merits. In the following essay, I will explore the connections between personality traits, skill in office, and presidential selection systems.

In doing so, I will make use of some widely-accepted analysis tools. The first and most important is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, along with Keirsey’s own analysis of past Presidents and their personality types in Presidential Temperament. Second is a ranking of the Presidents, conducted for the Wall Street Journal by James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School. Third is the division of presidential selection systems articulated by James Caesar in his Presidential Selection: Theory and Development.



David Keirsey has described a system based on four main character archetypes: Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals. While his full system contains 16 different groupings that roughly correspond to the also-famous Myers-Briggs type indicator; Keirsey has focused on these four archetypes and describes the Presidents largely in these terms. There is one sub-distinction he consistently makes within each category, which is whether the person leads primarily by issuing orders (directing) or sharing information (reporting).

In Keirsey’s system, the Artisan seeks excitement and virtuosity in whatever he does, and makes choices largely upon what he thinks will work while focusing on the physical world rather than abstractions. To an Artisan self-respect is based in bold action. Artisan Presidents include George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, and both Roosevelts.

Guardians, by contrast with Artisans, seek security and stability, and are highly concerned with rules as the basis for stability, although they share the Artisan’s focus on the concrete. Guardians are highly traditional and achieve self-respect through societal acknowledgement. Guardian Presidents include George Washington, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Rationals seek competence in all they do; like Artisans they are concerned with results rather than rules or ideology, but unlike Artisans or Guardians they work in abstractions rather than concretions. Their self-respect derives from their competence and their autonomy; their self-confidence derives from a strong will. Rational Presidents include the two John Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln.

Idealists are like Rationals in their concern with the abstract, but are like the Guardian in their respect for rules rather than efficacy. There have been no Idealist Presidents, although some observers cast Barack Obama as an idealist (Keirsey places Obama as a Rational).


I have compiled data on each President, their personality type, their ranking as a president, their re-election percentage (defined as those elected to the office again after holding it rather than those winning two elections, so that both Grover Cleveland and LBJ were re-elected), and the system under which they were elected. Presidents who died during their first term were excluded from the re-election calculation, as was Barack Obama since he has yet to undertake a second election. Doing so reveals a number of interesting trends among the personality types.

The simplest and broadest distinction we can make is between those Presidents who direct and those who report. There is a strong trend here: directing Presidents do much better than reporter presidents in both elections and the presidency: we’ve had 26 ‘directors’ with an average rank of 18.21, and only 16 ‘reporters’ with an average rank of 23.5. The directors also get re-elected more often: 58% rather than 45%.

We have had 14 Artisan Presidents in our history, and they have been middling. Their average ranking of 21.50 is the worst among the 3 personality types, but their average rating of 3.02 is in the middle. Fully 60% have been re-elected. There is a significant difference between directing and reporting Artisans, though: the directive Artisans have an average ranking of 13.86 (a vast improvement) and the reporters have an average ranking of 27.33. Their respective average ratings are 3.43 and 2.55.

Guardians have fared slightly worse than the Artisans; the 20 Guardians having an average rank of 21.06 but a lower 2.85 average ranking. They have a much worse re-election rate at 39% and maintain the distance between reporting and directing personalities, though not as strongly as the Artisan presidents: Directing Guardians have an average rank of 20.85 while reporters average 26.5 with ratings that average 3.01 for directors and 2.50 for reporters.

The Rationals are a bit of a paradox. Electorally, they are the least successful, as we have had only 14 Rational Presidents, but they have by far the best ranking. The average Rational rank is 16.13 with a 3.34 average rating; 71% have been re-elected, so Rationals have remained popular once in office. The Rationals reverse the high directing-based variance in rankings that Artisans demonstrated: director Rationals average a rank of 21.2 with a 2.95 rating, while the reporter Rational rank average is 7.67 with a 3.99 rating.

Selection Systems


We’ve had different electoral selection systems in our country over time. The first organized system was the Congressional caucus established for the 1800 election. Party conventions rose to prominence in 1828, and around 1908 reformers pushed the country to a mixed convention-primary system. The move to a primary-based system was completed around the 1976 election. These systems have had measurably different outcomes in the type and efficacy of persons elected to the presidency. The following descriptions are drawn from James Ceaser’s “Presidential Selection.”

The congressional caucus system was directed and defended largely by Thomas Jefferson, as he became more convinced that partisan politics were necessary to republicanism. Caucuses came into being due to the 12th Amendment and its implied need for parties to coordinate presidential nominations, and party leadership at the time was concentrated in the Congress. This system established issue advocacy as a reason for nomination and put the focus in nominations on who would best put your party in control of government, rather than who would best lead the nation.

Martin Van Buren deliberately strengthened partisan competition when he came to Washington, on both a theoretical and partisan basis. Van Buren contended that parties remained too weak in presidential selection, and this created “personal candidate factions and unchecked popular leadership.”

Van Buren believed that a convention system would reduce the time devoted to campaigning, and especially that it would help to keep personal campaigning out of legislating. An unintended consequence of the system was the increased power it gave to local state interests over those of the national government. These changes also reduced the oligarchic tendencies present in the caucusing system.

Woodrow Wilson formulated the next major theory of presidential selection. Wilson believed that power should flow directly from the people, and that the only basis for leadership is personal popularity. He attempted to free presidential selection from control of the parties, and his ideas helped fuel a progressive movement that led to a new mixed primary-convention system. Nonetheless, party leadership continued to play an important role after “outsider” strategies based on primary wins continued to fail.

Finally, a resurgence of ‘progressive’ thought in the 1960s led to a full primary system, which in turn led to the full supremacy of the candidate with little room for party leadership in selection. There was no single standard-bearer for this selection system; in fact it was in large part a fulfillment of Wilson’s thoughts.


These numbers were compiled along with those for the personality types. Presidents who received the office through succession are not counted under a selection system’s rating unless they were subsequently elected again while under it. Presidents who died or have yet to undergo a second election are excluded from the re-election calculations.

The congressional caucus, over 4 Presidents, was by far the most successful system in terms of Presidential rankings, with an average rank of 15.5, average rating of 3.3, and a re-election rate of 75%. Party conventions produced the worst Presidents, with an average ranking of 21.87, average rating of 2.91, and a re-election rate of only 36%. Despite their terrible record, the convention lasted through 80 years and 16 Presidents.

Following the party conventions, the mixed convention-primary system performed moderately better. Its 10 Presidents ranked an average 18.7, were rated 3.11 on average, and were re-elected 70% of the time. When we finally adopted a full primary system, we got 5 Presidents with an average ranking of 20.4, average rating of 3.03, and a 60% re-election rate.

Selection Impacts on Personality

There is a clear bias among the electoral systems toward different personalities. Only half of the Presidents selected via congressional caucus were directors; three quarters were Rationals and one was a Guardian. This presents a remarkable lack of Artisans and is quite the reverse of the country’s history as a whole, in which Guardians far outnumber Rationals. This makes some sense: while party leaders had control of the process, they would want to choose people who had been previously effective, and Rationals would have been over-represented in a Constitutional Convention — a place requiring the construction of large abstract systems without needing to follow existing sets of rules, except insofar as they were proven to work.

The party conventions presented a huge change in selection tendencies. A comparable rate (56.3%) of directors was elected. However, only 1 was a Rational (12.5%), while fully 50% were Guardians and slightly more than a third (37.5%) were Artisans. Certainly Guardians would have been preferred by the nation at large, since throughout most of the convention period those in power wanted to maintain the status quo — either to prevent a Civil War or to maintain Republican dominance. However, the conventions also tend to produce compromise candidates due to the power held by many diverse local interests, and a Guardian is suited in that role as well. Artisans were moderately successful in this system as well, perhaps due to their ability in ideological arguments. Interestingly, Guardians were singularly unsuccessful in re-election bids: of the five presidents re-elected under the convention system, only Grover Cleveland was a Guardian. Both Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were re-elected Artisans, and the systems two Rationals (Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant) were both re-elected.

The mixed system provided another major change in those elected. While the ratio of each archetype remained similar at 40% Artisan, 40% Guardian, and 20% Rational, this period was strongly pro-directors as an astounding 90% of Presidents had directive rather than reporter personalities. This trend toward director personalities may be thanks to the wars throughout this period.

Finally, the Primary system provided a moderate change in elected personalities. A fairly strong pro-Artisan bias is present, as they constitute 50% of elected Presidents. 33% of the primary Presidents have been Guardians, and Barack Obama is the first Rational elected since this selection system began. The percent of directors has dropped significantly from the mixed system’s 90% to 40%, the lowest share directors have had under any system. Notably, all 3 of the Artisans have been re-elected, while neither of the Guardians have. And while historians rate Ronald Reagan highly, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have rankings around 3.0, which is right on the line as far as re-electability apparently goes. This suggests that our new system favors campaign abilities far more than governing abilities, at least in the case of first-term contenders.


Presidential selection and nominating systems have a strong impact on what personalities are most viable in being elected President. Ideally, a nominating system would be designed to encourage those personality types we have found most effective in office: reporting Rationals and directing Artisans. Unfortunately, a system favorable to one of these groups is probably opposed to the other: directing Artisans are masters of primary campaigning (our current selection system), while reporting Rationals are intellectuals likely to be destroyed in the campaign environment for being out of touch.

However, it is possible that as our experience with this election system grows Rationals will find a place in it: primary campaigns, after all, are large distributed systems, easily abstractable. Barack Obama’s election demonstrates this, though he is a directing rather than reporter Rational.

In general, I have shown links between selection systems and candidate personalities, and between candidate personalities and their performance in office. While the dataset is small and some of the conclusions implied may be erroneous, this data should be considered by anyone trying to create a new selection system or refine the one we have in order to select more capable candidates to lead our nation.


Ceaser, James W. Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. Princeton University Press 1979.

Keirsey, David & Choiniere, Ray. Presidential Temperament: The Unfolding of Character in the Forty Presidents of the United States. Prometheus Nemesis Book Co, 1992.

Lyons, Michael. Presidential Character Revisited. Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec., 1997): pp. 791-811. Available at

Parent, Kip. Presidential Temperament — Obama Vs McCain. Accessed 11/24/08.—Obama-Vs-McCain&id=1627828.

Taranto, James. Presidential Leadership The Rankings. Wall Street Journal. Accessed 11/24/08.

The Winning Secret — 2008. Accessed 11/24/08.


Attached is the data I have generated for this paper. Classification of personality comes from Keirsey, Kip, and The Winning Secret. Ranking and Rating are from Taranto, and the selection system is from Ceaser. Election information is generally available from any encyclopedia.