The Case Against Dumb, Click-Bait Polls

Reuters thought it would be fun to compare President Obama’s approval rating against some fictional presidents. They were wrong.

03.24.15 4:42 PM ET

Reuters did a dumb thing.

On Monday, the news agency released a new Reuters/Ipsos poll demonstrating how President Obama’s poll numbers paled in comparison to those of make-believe characters.

“Whether it’s the earnest Josiah Bartlet from The West Wingor the manipulative Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Americans prefer television presidents to their real-life POTUS, President Barack “No Drama” Obama,” the accompanying Reuters article reads.

The survey stacked Obama’s favorability numbers against those of liberal-teddy-bear Bartlet, the morally bankrupt Underwood, Battlestar Galactica’s Laura Roslin, Scandal’s Fitzgerald Grant, and 24’s David Palmer. (Dennis Haysbert, who played the tough, African-American Democratic commander-in-chief Palmer, has argued that his character actually helped lay the groundwork for public acceptance of a black president in real-world USA.)

“A news organization spent good money that it could have spent on reporting conducting this poll [instead],” Mother Jones editor Nick Baumann responded indignantly to the Reuters-Ipsos poll on Monday.

There are many obvious reasons as to why this polling is outstandingly useless. For one, President Bartlet never invaded a country you didn’t want him to attack, nor did he ever impose tax hikes you weren’t fond of. In fact, he didn’t invade any countries, or raise any taxes, because he is president only in a land of make believe.

These characters are fictional, and even the morally ambiguous or Machiavellian ones are written to be sympathetic or alluring for the sake of compelling TV. This is about as instructive as polling the American people about who is the superior leader: Barack Obama, Santa Claus, or the cutest Ewok from the Star Wars franchise.

Fictional characters and celebrities are already at a pop-cultural advantage when it comes to approval ratings. If you want evidence that citizens believe Tom Hanks is more trustworthy than Barack Obama, then there’s a poll out there for you.

Reuters isn’t alone. For instance, the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling acts out its mischievous side by asking ridiculous, unabashedly troll-y questions, such as whether or not hipsters should pay a tax for being “annoying,” or if George Zimmerman would be a good presidential candidate.

And the Reuters survey isn’t even the first time a charming, fictional POTUS was pitted against an actual politician. Shortly before the 2000 election, an NBC poll showed that The West Wing’s Bartlet would get more votes than Bush and Gore put together. So it’s hardly news that a popular fake president would score higher than a real one who is still alive and making policy decisions in a politically polarized America.

Sure, no news organization is above click-bait. Click-bait can be fun. Click-bait is often good. Click-bait can help subsidize other, more valuable functions of a news organization.

But this was just dumb.