The SOTU: Big audience, no bounce

While the State of the Union is the most important address a president gives, it has much less influence on public opinion than most observers assume.

Its potential for impact is evident in the size of its audience. Last year, President Obama spoke to a television audience of 48 million Americans in his State of the Union (SOTU). President Clinton drew both the largest audience (67 million in 1993) and the smallest (31.5 million in 2000). A few months after September 11th, nearly 52 million viewers tuned in to President George W. Bush’s 2002 address, while in 2006 his audience was just under 42 million. His valedictory SOTU in 2008 captured 37.5 million. 

Note that these figures exclude PBS and C-SPAN viewers because those networks are not monitored by Nielsen. The tendency of poll respondents to vastly overstate socially positive behavior is on vivid display here — polls pick up much larger viewership than does Nielsen. For example, Nielsen reports that the 1999 State of the Union was seen by 43.5 million people, or 31 percent of households with a television. By contrast, 59 percent told Pew pollsters they had watched the speech.

Audiences for SOTUs tend to be somewhat larger than those for inaugurals. President Obama and President Reagan’s first inaugural garnered the two largest audiences (38 million and 42 million, respectively), but most have viewership under 30 million.

Other presidential speeches usually draw even smaller audiences. President Obama’s Oval Office address after the BP disaster was seen by 32 million Americans, while 31 million watched his widely heralded speech following the Tucson tragedy. Fewer than 17 million watched President Bush’s speech in 2002 leading up to the Iraq war.

Of course, there are exceptions. President Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress two weeks after the September 11th attacks and 80 million Americans tuned in. 

Even convention speeches usually generate smaller audiences. President Obama and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMulvaney aims to cement CFPB legacy by ensuring successor's confirmation Trump mocks McCain at Nevada rally Don’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act MORE hold the record for the most-watched convention speeches with audiences of 38-39 million. Some 20 million viewers watched Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryShould President Trump, like President Obama, forsake human rights in pursuit of the deal with a tyrant? GOP Senate report says Obama officials gave Iran access to US financial system Democrats conflicted over how hard to hit Trump on Iran MORE’s acceptance speech in 2004, while 23 million tuned in for George Bush’s speech to the Republican convention.

Audience size is not the same thing as influence, however. Convention speeches often produce a “bounce,” while States of the Union rarely do. 

Without engaging the controversies inherent in measuring such bounces, suffice it to say that Gallup data peg the average bounce from a convention speech at about 6 points. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBest-selling author jokes he knows 'what Pence must feel like' on book tour with Bill Clinton Bill Clinton blasts family separation: 'Children should not be bargaining chips' In memory of Charles Krauthammer, an American genius and dear friend MORE picked up 16 points in 1992 (in part because Ross Perot dropped out) while Jimmy Carter gained 10 in the two biggest convention bounces. An alternative calculation, based on a larger number of polls, suggests an average convention bounce of about 6 points.

By contrast, presidential approval in Gallup polls before and after SOTU speeches shows little consistent impact. Starting in 1978, on average, Gallup finds zero movement. Indeed, half the time, the speeches produced a negative bounce with approval ratings falling in the aftermath. In four other instances there was literally no change at all. On only four occasions did a president’s approval rating increase by more than 4 points after a SOTU, and three of those were during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

In this respect, President Obama is much like his predecessors. Last year he went into his SOTU with 48 percent approval in the Gallup poll, and it remained at 48 percent for the three subsequent days, rising slightly after that to 50 percent.

Of course, improvement in a president’s public standing is not the only measure of a speech’s importance. SOTUs can set agendas for Congress and the administration, articulate policy, provide new perspective on those polices and give partisans the language, arguments and frames with which to communicate.

But while widely watched, these speeches rarely shift public evaluations of the presidents delivering them.

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.