Overthinking THE WEST WING Gives Us Insights Out the Wazoo

Some people who go just about anywhere to find the true meaning of their favorite TV show. For example:


Bartlet’s First Term: Graphed by Ben Adams

The election of 2012 saw an important shift in the way politics is conducted and in the way it is covered by the media. Whether we’re looking at President Obama’s team of number-crunchers or the rise of Nate Silver’s 538 Blog, politics is more quantitative than ever. For the most serious political thinkers, polls and numbers are one of the the most important tools of political analysis. But, this is Overthinking It, so we have to ask: can we use these tools to look at fictional Presidents? How does our most famous pop-culture Commander in Chief stack up against real-life Presidents?

For 7 years beginning in1999, “The West Wing” was the most prominent pop-culture portrayal of Presidential power and of politics. For fans of the show, President Bartlet was the kind of President we could only dream of having. The show was on for more than 100 episodes, and like any real-life POTUS, he guarded his approval rating jealously. With that much data out there, I set out to chart President Bartlet’s approval rating over this first term, and compare it to the modern era of U.S. Presidents.


Before I dive in, I’d like to discuss how I arrived at the data. First of all, I focused only on Bartlet’s first term in office, taking it through the half-way point of Season 4. Seasons 5-7 just didn’t have enough data to make much headway – mentions of approval rating disappeared almost entirely. I also made one major assumption: that any event significant enough to move the needle more than a few points would have been portrayed in an episode – it’s unlikely that we fought a major war or the administration suffered a major scandal that happened entirely off-screen.

I’ve got a more detailed description of my methodology below, but if you want to skip right to the graph, the basic process was:

  1. Find all explicit mentions of approval rating in the transcripts
  2. Make a subjective judgment for each episode whether the approval rating was like to go up or down following the events of the episode
  3. Interpolate between that data
  4. Add some noise to make it look more realistic

I used the “West Wing Transcripts” website  and scoured them for any mention of “Approval”, “Points”, “Percent”, etc. I am fairly certain that I got all explicit mentions of where the approval rating was, but it’s possible that it was discussed colloquially in a way that did not come up in my search – if you find one, please let me know in the comments. All told, I found 13 explicit mentions of the President’s approval rating, spread out over his first four years (there is also a flashback to the first few weeks in office that provided two data point.)


The fully interpolated data is in blue, with the data points based on actual episodes marked in red.


The graph is clearly dominated by three key events – the assassination attempt on the President (Season 1 Finale), the MS announcement (Season 2 Finale) and the campaign against Governor Ritchie (Season 4)….

Read it all (but prepare yourself; there’s a lot more)

We love that Ben Adams did this. We love that to him President Bartlett is as real as he is to us. But we admit to finding what we think to be one fatal flaw in this analysis: Adams treats the John Wells produced episodes as every bit as “real” as the Aaron Sorkin ones, when, plainly, the Wells shows are just fictional. Let’s face it, any true fan knows that Sorkin, at the top of his game, was the only True Chronicler of our much-missed Josiah.

One thought on “Overthinking THE WEST WING Gives Us Insights Out the Wazoo”

  1. “LINCOLN”?
    Look at it this way: ‘At least he got it in the end’. I, on the other hand, had to figure out how to get the disk out of the player, and what to do with it so I won’t stick it back inside by accident. Or God forbid, it’s contagious! gs

Comments are closed.