Pained by Numbers

By: Thomas Lindaman

If you’ve been watching the media lately (and I know you have been because I’ve put little cameras in your living room), you’ve heard a lot about President Bush’s approval ratings being in the 20-30% range for a while now. Well, he’s not alone. A recent Gallup poll shows Congress’s approval rating at 14%, even lower than that of Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. You know, when you’re sucking Libby’s popularity fumes, you have a serious image problem.

Actually, everyone in Washington has an image problem: they’re worried too much about their image to actually do their jobs. While we’re fixated on the approval ratings, we’re not paying attention to whether these popular politicians are doing anything. A Senator with great hair that does little to nothing on the job isn’t really an asset to anyone. Then again, Massachusetts keeps sending John Kerry back to the Senate, so they must see something in him…

When did we decide that being popular meant more than being competent? I know this was the rule in high school, but last time I checked Congress wasn’t high school. Elementary school, maybe, but not high school. Popularity isn’t everything, you know. What’s really important is what kind of person you are on the inside, not the outside. And if that were reality, I’d have had a lot better luck with the ladies in high school. Adolescent love life failures notwithstanding, it really is important that we send qualified people to represent us in Washington, DC. When we don’t, we get bad results, like…well, like we have now.

Another problem with the concept of approval numbers is that it doesn’t delve too deeply into why people approve or disapprove of a political figure. When approval rating polls are taken, the question is little more than “Do you approve or disapprove of the job the President/Congress is doing?” Not a lot of room for interpretation there. Just approve or disapprove, chocolate or vanilla, K-Fed or any of the other white trash guys who have had Britney Spears. To make such a shallow question so deep in terms of politics is like letting Leatherface perform your bris: not a good idea.

The main reason we’re being fed numbers that ultimately don’t mean anything is because it gives the media a reason to create a horse race mentality. Normally, the media hold off on talking about numbers and who’s up or down until it’s closer to the actual election, but with the election cycle starting before last year’s Congressional elections, the media have to sustain interest by pushing the numbers. And since we’ve been trained that numbers don’t lie, we give them credibility. Don’t believe me? Seven out of ten people don’t believe me either.

There’s one other thing to consider when we look at approval numbers or any numbers that rank popularity or the lack thereof. Numbers can be wrong. A misplaced decimal point here, a hastily misadded number there, and you can have an incorrect result. That’s why it’s so important to not only focus on the numbers, but how we came up with them. Ken Lay didn’t, and look how he turned out. That’s right, boys and girls. He’s dead. Just say no to bad math.

Seriously, understanding how a number is derived can give us a better understanding of the actual environment. Just because President Bush has a 29% approval rating doesn’t mean he’s hated by 71% of the population. (Then again, after his latest amnesty deal, he might just be hated by 71% of the population.) After all, there may be people surveyed who have no opinion of his job performance. We call them “coma patients.”

We need to forget approval ratings as a means to determine the success or failure of a political figure because it’s rarely an accurate portrayal of a figure’s ultimate legacy. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t too popular when he was President, but history remembers him as one of our greatest. If we focus too much on whether we like a politician, we become too willing to overlook the flaws that make him or her unfit for office. If you’re still not convinced of the potential hazards of electing the popular over the competent, I have two words for you.

President Sanjaya.

Thomas Lindaman is a Staff Writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. ( and The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. He is also Publisher of

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