What Is God's Approval Rating and Other Dumb Poll Questions

What can we learn from really stupid polls?

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Who is the most admired man in America? What grade (A through F) would you give the nation’s public education system? Is the country on the wrong or right track? What is God’s approval rating?

These are all questions that have been asked in actual national polls over the years—and all of them can provide misleading answers. The problem is that shared, human biases affect poll responses.

Let’s take the first one, which is actually a question from the very reputable Gallup organization that has been asked every year since 1948. So, who were the “winners” of the question, “Who is the most admired man in America?” in 2019? It was a tie. Barack Obama and Donald Trump were the most frequently mentioned, each receiving 18% of those polled!

What’s going on?

It becomes clearer if you look at the results broken down by political party. Of those who most admired Obama, 41% were Democrats (as opposed to 3% of Republicans). For Trump, 45% were Republicans (and only 2% Democrats). Obviously, political party strongly biases who is chosen as most admired.

How about the grade given to U.S. public schools? Well, in one poll, most parents gave fairly low marks to the nation’s public schools. But, in the same poll, they were asked to give a grade to the public school that they chose for their students. What was the result? A much higher grade. Why is the local school given higher marks than other schools? Cognitive dissonance. It is cognitively inconsistent to give poor grades to a local school that the parent’s child attends, and the parent may have even chosen for their own child.

Is the country on the right or wrong track? The response to this poll question has been fairly stable for decades – a majority feels that the country is on the wrong track, and it is largely unaffected by economic conditions, social problems, the party in office, and just about any other variable. The question is biased by a persistent belief that the government should do better.

Perhaps the most absurd poll comes from a few years ago, when a polling firm, Public Policy Polling (PPP) surveyed Americans on their support for congressional leaders, during squabbling over raising the U.S. debt ceiling.  As you can imagine, congressional members were given very low approval ratings – about in the teens. In that same poll, respondents were asked the following question: “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance [handling of natural disasters; handling of creating the universe, etc.]?”  Only a slight majority, 52% approved of God’s overall performance!

Despite the absurdity of the poll question about God, it sends the message that we need to critically evaluate both poll results, and the media’s interpretation of those polls.