State of the Union: How are voters reacting to Obama's speech?

The first polls on voter response to President Obama's State of the Union speech may be generating at least a few high fives at the White House. But the audience was smallish, and SOTUs seldom produce much of an afterglow.

Larry Downing/AP/File
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, Jan. 28, in Washington.

So President Obama’s big State of the Union moment has come and gone. How did voters react to the speech?

Well, the first poll numbers are rolling in, and they look OK for the White House. According to a snap CNN/ORC survey, 44 percent of viewers who’d watched Mr. Obama said they had a “very positive” response to his SOTU address. Thirty-two percent said they had a “somewhat positive” response, and 22 percent disliked it.

That’s about the same level of overall positive response as Obama got last year in a similar poll, although the percentage of people in the top “very positive” category was higher in 2013.

Similarly, a just-released CBS poll shows 83 percent of responding viewers said they approved of the proposals outlined in the speech. Only 17 percent disapproved.

There are a couple of mitigating factors to keep in mind here, however. The first is that SOTUs are often well-received by voters, no matter how much David Brooks on PBS (or any other pundit) gripes in its aftermath.

In a 2002 CBS poll, 85 percent of viewers said they approved of then-President George W. Bush’s State of the Union, for instance.

In part this is because voters who choose to watch the speech in the first place tend to be predisposed to like it. The audience for a Democratic president’s SOTU will be disproportionately made up of Democrats; that for a Republican president will be more heavily GOP.

The other point of context for this year’s State of the Union is that the overall audience shrank. Bloomberg has added up the numbers, and it figures Obama’s total audience was about 31 million viewers. That’s down from about 33 million in 2013, and is the smallest SOTU audience of Obama’s term in office.

It’s very unlikely that Tuesday night’s address will boost Obama’s favorability ratings in the long term. That’s because a chief executive’s words, by themselves, generally don’t affect polls, according to John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University who specializes in public opinion and elections.

“Speeches, no matter how eloquent or well-received, rarely make a president more popular,” writes Mr. Sides on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog hosted by the Washington Post.

But that does not mean the public ignores the content of presidential speeches entirely, Sides adds. Voters learn from SOTUs and other addresses. They tend to rate issues identified in presidential speeches as more important.

This could have some political effect down the road.

Democracy Group, a Democratic-leaning firm founded by Clinton strategist James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenburg, ran a dial testing survey during Tuesday’s speech. That’s where participants turn a dial up or down to rate what they’re hearing at the moment.

They added results from a focus group of 44 Colorado swing voters. Among their overall findings: Participants rated Obama’s economic plans much more highly after the speech was over.

“Voters gave him high marks on his push for [gender] paycheck fairness, minimum wage, education, student loans, and job training. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama’s plan for paycheck fairness,” wrote Greenberg, Carville, et al.

That could be dismissed as wishful thinking from a left-leaning organization. But the conservative journalist Byron York notes in the Washington Examiner that Democracy Group has not hesitated to criticize Democrats in the past.

The GOP should pay attention to their findings, Mr. York writes Wednesday.

“The bottom line is that the [focus] group in Colorado – swing voters in a swing state – responded much more positively to the substance of Obama’s speech than the horde of lawmakers, aides, tweeters and talkers in Washington. That is something Republicans in particular should note as they shape their agenda for 2014,” according to York.

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