When a President steps before Congress and the cameras, it’s a primetime event unlike few others in American life. The ratings can approach those of the Super Bowl, exceeding sporting contests or media awards. One might therefore assume that the State of the Union (SOTU) speech generates a boost in a president’s polls. But is that the case?
My students and I investigated this matter. We looked at whether such speeches are a public opinion bonanza. How did President Donald Trump fare in his last two SOTU speeches? Which presidents have given the best State of the Union speeches, and who had the worst ones? Does one party outdo the other in this high publicity moment? What’s the future of these SOTU speeches?
Do State Of The Union Addresses create a bump in the polls?
In examining the evidence, we looked at a single polling agency, Gallup, which conducts an extensive number of polls over time. These detailed surveys go back to when LBJ was in office. We look at what the president’s ratings were before the State of the Union speech (where the last survey occurred before the speech), and the first surveys taken after the speech.
Despite having such a large audience, and many people clapping, the boost in the polls is mild at best. Analysis of 20 State of the Union speeches in the first two years of all presidents from Johnson to Trump reveals that the average bounce in the polls is 0.9 percentage points. So if a president doesn’t come roaring out of the gates after delivering the grand speech, it’s not unusual.
How did Donald Trump do?
President Trump had a fair number of viewers of his State of the Union speech, but it was not the highest rated one in history, or recent history. He had 47.4 million viewers last year (for his speech to the joint session of Congress — it’s not an official SOTU, but it has all of the excitement and ratings of a primetime speech, so we count them), and 45.6 million this year. Comparing all SOTU speeches for Nielsen ratings, it was the ninth biggest since 1993, out of 25 (last year’s was the eighth biggest). From 1993 to 2018, presidents average a rating of 49.7 in their first two SOTU speeches.
However, President Trump can gain some solace from the fact that he had more than Obama’s 31.3 million from 2016. Most presidents (Clinton, Bush) have their lowest numbers in their last (in each case here, eighth year) SOTU.
Which presidents gave the best SOTU speeches, and the worst ones?
There are always debates over which USA Presidents were “the best.” But we can see which American Presidents got the biggest boosts in approval ratings following a performance in the big speech. Among these, President George H. W. Bush got the strongest bump in the polls, with 12 points up in 1989 following that early speech. After George Bush Sr. comes Bill Clinton’s first year, which saw him jump from 51% to 59% in approval ratings. After Clinton came Ronald Reagan’s first year, where his ratings soared from 55% to 60%. In his second year, Clinton’s four point increase was the fourth biggest poll increase since 1978.
The biggest drop in the polls was Richard Nixon in 1971, shedding seven points off his approval ratings. President Carter lost five points in his 1978 speech, while George Bush Sr. saw his approval rating drop four points after his second SOTU. Like his father, George W. Bush saw his second State of the Union speech drop, though only by a pair of points, just as Obama did in 2010.
What about the future of The State Of The Union Address?
Primetime speeches weren’t always the norm. In fact, from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft, the address was a handwritten note delivered from the Executive Branch to the Legislative Branch. The professorial President Woodrow Wilson’s in-person speech surprised the political establishment in 1913. Under Harry Truman, we began to see such events televised.
But however the speech is delivered, its length, the party of the president, or how popular the president is at the time, it still seems to be more about what is said than how it is said, as undergraduate Blake Konans pointed out.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. His undergraduates Agrlin Braxton, Casey Evans, Natalie Glass, Jacob Hester, Blake Konans, Alanna Martin, Slone Raper, Yasmine Roper, Bre’lan Simpson, Kirksley Wainwright, Donald West, Bonny Woods, and Breanna Wyrosdick contributed to the analysis.