It’s time for my now annual reminder that no one should expect the State of the Union speech to bolster the president’s approval ratings. The SOTU bounce is largely a fiction.
Attention will be properly lavished on the speech. It will articulate the administration’s goals, prioritize its efforts, give marching orders to agencies, help set the congressional agenda and coin phrases Democrats will repeat for months.
Many refuse to believe me when I make this argument. After all, lots of people are watching: 33.5 million tuned in last year, down from the record 67 million who saw then-President Clinton deliver his 1993 address. And, as we shall see, polls immediately after these speeches suggest they have roiled the country.
Yet the evidence is indisputable: State of the Union speeches have no consistent impact on the core indicator of presidential political health: the job-approval rating.
Last year, President Obama went into the speech with 50 percent approving of his performance in the HuffPost Pollster average and 45 percent disapproving. After his address, 50 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved —zero change — matching the zero average change during the entire period for which we have before and after polling.
Indeed, ratings decline after State of the Union addresses more than they improve.
In only four instances has a president’s approval rating increased by 4 points or more, while it has decreased by 4 or more points five times. Clinton holds the title for three of the four meaningful post-speech improvements. The biggest declines in approval were registered by the Bushes (two for the son, one for the father), while the “great communicator” himself, former President Reagan, owns the two other significant falloffs.
Part of the reason commentators assume these speeches affect presidents’ public standing are instant polls, which suggest strong positive reactions. On average, CBS found some 85 percent of viewers approving of the proposals made by presidents since 2005, while CNN registered an average 17-point increase in the number of viewers agreeing that the president’s policies will move the country in the right direction.
Yet there is no consistent relationship between responses to these questions about the State of the Union and the change in approval ratings the speeches generate. The strongest positive reaction in CNN’s data was for former President George W. Bush’s 2002 address. But his approval rating dropped 2 points after the speech.
The greatest increase in the number of people believing the president’s policies are moving the country in the right direction came in response to Clinton’s 1995 address, but his approval rating rose only 2 points. Bush’s approval rating climbed 6 points after his 2005 speech, one of the biggest increases on record. However, the increase in the number of viewers thinking his policies would move us in the right direction was one of the smallest.
Why the almost complete disconnect?
While the speeches draw huge audiences, only a minority of the country is watching. Nearly half the nation’s households watch the Super Bowl, but only a quarter tunes into the president’s address. Math reveals that big changes in this relatively small sliver are muted in the population as a whole. A 17-point movement in a quarter of the country is about 4 points in the nation overall.
Second, a president’s audience is usually filled with fellow partisans who already like him. In 2013, CNN found 44 percent of the audience was Democratic and 17 percent Republican, about 12 points more Democratic than the population overall. With nearly 9 in 10 Democrats approving of the president’s performance before he spoke, there’s little room for improvement among much of his audience.
Third, instant polls reflect instant reaction. Many viewers are moved immediately after hearing a president’s hourlong pitch. But as commentary points out flaws and failings, distortions and disagreements, people settle back into their preexisting attitudes.
Whatever the reason, don’t expect a bounce from this or any other State of the Union address.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.