Correction to This Article
In the Nov. 5 Style section, the TV Column incorrectly reported that the live "debate" between candidates on NBC's "The West Wing" would air at 6 p.m. Mountain time. It was taped for broadcast at 7 p.m. in that time zone.
Real Numbers for Fictional Candidates

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, November 5, 2005

Viewers want Jimmy Smits to become the next leader of the United States, pollster Zogby International said on the eve of Smits's live faux presidential debate with Alan Alda on "The West Wing."

On the other hand, viewers think Alda's character is more "presidential," and far better suited for the Oval Office.

Only they'd rather not leave their child with him in an emergency.

Though they'd vote for Alda if he ever ran for elected office in real life.

Scarily, 99.8 percent of these people are registered voters.

Democratic Rep. Matthew Santos -- that's Smits -- would pound Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick -- Alda -- if regular "West Wing" viewers got to vote in tomorrow night's faux election, with 59 percent of the popular vote compared with 29 percent for Vinick.

Sadly, 12 percent said they'd vote for someone else. (Who, people? It's a TV show! And, by the way, it isn't really shot in the Oval Office.)

MSNBC.com hired Zogby to conduct the poll. Forrest Sawyer, playing himself, will moderate as Smits and Alda square off at 8 p.m. tomorrow for the show's East Coast feed (7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain time). They'll do it all over again live for viewers on the West Coast at 8 p.m. Pacific time.

Ironically, when those polled were asked if they would support one of the actors if he ran for public office in real life, just 36 percent said they would vote for Smits; 44 percent would vote for Alda.

Now -- here's where you need to be sitting -- a majority of respondents (57 percent) said they would more likely support Smits's character because of his political philosophy. Only 26 percent said they would support him because they thought he was better suited to run the country. A majority (52 percent) said they would be more likely to support Alda's character because he's "more presidential."

Only 20 percent of "West Wing" voters who participated in the poll said they'd feel safe leaving their child with Alda's Sen. Vinick if an emergency came up and they had to run an errand, compared with 58 percent who'd feel comfortable leaving Junior with Smits's Rep. Santos.

And, when asked which of the two candidates better represents their views on health care and prescription drugs, Social Security, abortion, race relations, international relations and terrorism, at least one-third of respondents said they were not sure.

But this is all academic, since there isn't going to be an election.

And there is little question in the minds of "West Wing" viewers who the show's writers intend to put in the White House.

More than 70 percent of respondents think the writers will elect Smits; only 20 percent think they'll send Vinick to the Oval Office.

But, because we are a cynical people, 33 percent said they thought the decision would be based not on the character's suitability for the job or on politics but rather on what would give the show bigger ratings. Another 28 percent responded that the decision would be based on the "writers' bias."

Which viewers believe is liberal -- Santos liberal.

A full 77 percent of respondents said "The West Wing" has a liberal bias. That said, current faux President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is much beloved, with a job approval rating at a whopping 75 percent, even though the Bartlet administration has had its share of debacles, most recently the leaking to the news media of classified information about a secret military space shuttle.

Even so, 85 percent of respondents said they hold a positive opinion of Bartlet as president.

Meanwhile, the current real president, with similar headaches, is suffering his worst poll numbers ever -- a job approval rating of just 39 percent, with 60 percent disapproving of his performance in office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Zogby rep Fritz Wenzel said that was one of the things that most surprised him about his poll findings.

"That's a number George W. can only dream about," Wenzel said of Bartlet's approval rating.

"He has gone through scandals every bit as serious as the [Bush] administration, yet people still seem to like him," Wenzel told The TV Column.

Any lesson here for W?

"Hire a better scriptwriter," Wenzel said.

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