01/27/2010 12:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

State of the Union: Don't Expect a Bounce

Perhaps political journalists have all gotten the message by now that polling "bumps" from the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address are more myth than reality. If so, this post may be something of a cliche. But I'm not convinced, so I want to recommend this very helpful report published last night by Gallup based on their 30-year archive of pre and post SOTU polling.

If you report or comment on politics, it's a must read. If you are short on time, here are the two main points (with a little added value from our own posts over the last five years):

1) "These speeches rarely affect a president's public standing in a meaningful way, despite the amount of attention they receive."

Gallup's report includes a table showing the level of presidential approval measured immediately before and after the last 27 State of the Union addresses. "Across all presidents," they report, "the average change in approval has been less than a one percentage-point decline.

It is also keeping in mind, as I wrote on the old Mystery Pollster blog four years ago, that the one big exception to the rule -- the apparent 10 percentage point jump for Bill Clinton in 1998 -- was a very unique presidential address:

The Monica Lewinsky story had broken just a few days before. The day before that speech, Bill Clinton faced the cameras and delivered his infamous "I never had sex with that woman" quote. MP cannot find the ratings for that speech, but interest in the speech was certainly high. Ironically, the reaction to Clinton's performance - seemingly unfazed by the scandal erupting around him - help[ed] boost his numbers in a way that persisted until the impeachment trial ended with an acquittal.

So the one exception to the rule may have been less about perceptions of the speech itself and more about how the speech fit into the context of a larger event.

Bottom line: Don't expect a big bump tonight. My post from 2006 covers a lot of the same ground as the Gallup report, as does Charles" Franklin's commentary in 2007 on this graphic


2) "The audiences for the State of the Union tend to be heavily tilted toward the president's existing supporters."

This table from the report is in many ways the most useful for those of us who will be looking at the one-night-wonder polls conducted immediately after the speech.


In many ways, this is the one poll measurement that interests me tonight: Will the speech attract an audience heavily tilted toward Democrats, as is typical, or will the enthusiasm gap apparent in so many approval polls (Republicans report a greater likelihood to vote in 2010 than Democrats) make for a more balanced audience? In other words, will the audience look more like 1999 or 1995 (just days after Republicans took control of the House and Senate, installing Newt Gingrich in the seat just behind President Clinton)? While a typically Democratic skew will tell us little (notice the composition in 1994), it will be a very bad sign for Democrats if the audience consists of as many who tune in to jeer as to cheer.

On the subject of immediate reaction polls and focus groups, see my post from this past September which reviews their widely varying methodologies and the limitations inherent in this sort of survey.