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Stop Writing About Polls Comparing Obama to Frank Underwood

The results are misleading, and tell us more about our own insecurities than they do Obama's popularity.
Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood on House of Cards. (Photo: Netflix)

Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood on House of Cards. (Photo: Netflix)

There's a new viral political opinion poll claiming a fictional opportunistic sociopath is more popular than President Barack Obama. Don’t believe it.

A Reuters poll found that the maniacal President Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey on the political thriller House of Cards, is positively favored by 57 percent of its respondents, while the current (and real) president garnered just 46 percent.

To be sure, this says a lot about the state of opinion polling and very little about the public's current opinion of a U.S. president. Public opinion polling has a long and infamous love affair with fictional ideas.

Social scientists have long known that the public will offer an opinion about an idea, whether they know anything about it or not. For instance, in 2012, nearly half of Americans (39 percent) had an opinion about a completely fictitious policy plan, the Panetta-Burns budget reduction plan.

Last year, I conducted my own poll on whether Americans should provide military assistance to the troubled people of "Guavstan." A whopping 63 percent of respondents had an opinion about a nation that does not exist.

"People give opinions on fictitious issues, in large part, because of the pressure to answer."

Sure, a few people knew it was completely false. "guavastan ... is that near papaya ville," one respondent joked. But still, most had an opinion.

In 1986, political scientist George F. Bishop published a study addressing this very matter. Why, he wondered, is there often "social pressure" to answer a question? Bishop found that, basically, people either don't want to seem dumb or don't want to disappoint the questioner (in this case, pollster). "The findings suggest that people give opinions on fictitious issues, in large part, because of the pressure to answer," Bishop explained. "The more a person knows about a subject, however (e.g. politics, sports), the less likely he or she is to make such a mistake; in fact, the more they know about the subject, the more easily they can recognize what is familiar and what is not."

This last part is key: the better informed the respondents, the more we can trust a poll. Unfortunately, Americans generally are not very informed about politics; forty-one percent can’t name the vice president, according to one Pew Report.

Earlier this week, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel had some fun with this, asking folks on Hollywood Boulevard if they could ID the vice president. One young man thought Joe Biden was a "terrorist." Another thought he was a "movie star."

More to the point, in another segment Kimmel asked bystanders about completely fictitious events, like President Obama’s pardoning of 53 inmates, in celebration of his 53rd birthday. "My girlfriend told me about it and we talked about it," answered one respondent confidently.

So, when presented with how to interpret Reuters' poll, we have two options: One, we can conclude that Americans really do want a murderous sociopath to hold the most powerful position in the world. Or, two, respondents were guessing how to answer a question they actually didn't know anything about and ended up with a coin's flip probability of "favoring" a fictitious president.

I would guess that the latter explanation seems more likely.