President Trump and Co. are hoping to “reset” his beleaguered presidency with this week’s State of the Union address.
History suggests it won’t happen.
Rarely have State of the Union speeches had significant or lasting impact on presidents’ approval rating.
Moreover, President Trump faces obstacles other presidents have not.
First and foremost, he has created a yawning credibility gap for himself. Americans just don’t believe him. Only 35 percent consider him honest. When the president touts his accomplishments, he will face deep skepticism about the basic veracity of his statements.
Those doubts will be compounded by experience when his focus shifts to the GOP tax bill.
He’ll tell us people are getting raises and bonuses, but the latest AP/IPSOS poll, out Monday, found only 2 percent had received such a benefit. And more people expect their taxes to go up than down as a result of the bill.
Trump will be charging up a very big hill.
But in fairness, most presidents have had great difficulty using the State of the Union to improve their public standing.
Polls produced in the immediate aftermath of these events may seem to suggest otherwise, but most often, the addresses have no consistent impact on the core indicator of a president’s political health: his job-approval rating.
Examining those approval ratings just before and just after their addresses reveals that the average change is zero.
In only four instances has the president’s approval rating increased by 4 points or more, while it decreased by 4 or more points on five occasions.
Bill Clinton holds title to three of the four meaningful improvements to have taken place after the State of the Union address.
The biggest declines in approval were registered by the Bushes (two for the son, one for the father), while the “great communicator” himself, Ronald Reagan, suffered the two other significant falloffs.
However, the central tendency is for these annual national rituals to leave only a barely perceptible trace in the public consciousness. In over two-thirds of cases, approval ratings shifted by 3 points or less in either direction.
Nonetheless, by the time you read this, you will probably be seeing instant polls purporting to portend big shifts in public attitudes.
Pro tip: That almost always happens, and usually portends nothing.
For example, in CBS post-speech polls, some 85 percent of viewers, on average, have approved of the proposals made by presidents since 2005.
CNN found an average 15-point increase in the number of viewers agreeing that the president’s policies will move the country in the right direction.
But these seemingly intense reactions do not translate into meaningful change in the indicator that has real political consequences—presidential approval.
The strongest positive reaction in the CNN data was for George W. Bush’s 2002 address. What happened to Bush’s
approval rating after the speech? It went down 2 points.
The weakest positive reaction was also to a Bush speech, in 2006. The result: his approval rating dropped 1 point.
The disconnect is almost total. Why?
While audiences for State of the Union addresses are huge, they still comprise a minority of the country. Only twice since Nielsen began measuring in 1994 have more than a third of Americans tuned in to this vital speech, and often it’s more like a quarter.
Big changes in this relatively small sliver of the country can be muted in the population as a whole. A 15-point jump in a quarter of the country is less than 4 points in the nation as a whole.
Moreover, instant polls are just that: instant. Only the truly hardened aren’t moved immediately after hearing a president pitch for an hour.
But soon, as commentary points out flaws and failings, distortions and disagreements, people settle back into their preexisting habits and attitudes.
If Trump expects his speech to provide a big bounce, let alone a “reset” of his image in the public mind, he will likely be severely disappointed.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.