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Parsing the Polls: A State of the Union Bounce?

Will President George W. Bush get any kind of bump in the polls following his latest State of the Union address?

In the run-up to Bush's speech, Republicans and Democrats had very different (and surprising) takes on this question. Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster during the 2004 campaign, released a memo through the Republican National Committee arguing that history has shown no real boost for a president in the wake of the State of the Union. Phil Singer, a spokesman at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called the Dowd memo a "flashback" to the 2004 campaign "when [Dowd] regularly tried to manipulate expectations."  Other Democrats released a series of headlines from past years noting the positive bumps Bush had after State of the Union addresses.

So, who's right? Is it reasonable to expect a polling jump for Bush or not? Let's try and find an answer in this week's version of "Parsing the Polls."

First, take a look at the polling analysis provided by Jeffrey Jones at Gallup.

Going back to 1978, Jones points out that presidents have seen their approval numbers improve after the State of the Union ten times; their numbers dropped 12 times, and twice there was no change. (The reason there are only 24 State of the Union addresses in the 28 years since 1978 is that the president does not give a State of the Union speech in his first year in office.)

Only four times out of those 24 speeches did the president receive a statistically significant boost -- four points or more, according to Jones.

One of those four major boosts came last year when Bush entered the speech with a 51 percent approval rating and left it with a 57 percent mark.

The point Jones makes -- and it is a good one -- is that Bush's boost in 2005 can be chalked up as much to other circumstances in the aftermath of the speech than to the contents of the address itself. During the days between Gallup's pre-2005 speech poll (in the field from Jan. 14-16) and the post-speech poll (Feb. 4-6), the Iraqi people participated in their first free elections since Saddam Hussein was ousted -- an event that drew considerable and sustained positive news coverage for the Bush administration.

"These elections were widely regarded as being successful, and are the type of event that often causes a rally in a president's approval rating," writes Jones. Bush's approval quickly reverted back to form in subsequent Gallup surveys, suggesting that the some combination of the Iraqi elections and his State of the Union speech had provided him with some temporary positive momentum.

The one president of recent vintage whose State of the Union speeches consistently delivered a poll boost was Bill Clinton. In five of Clinton's seven addresses, his approval numbers increased following the address. The movement ranged from two points (1995) to a whopping ten points (1998).

Clinton's double-digit gain in 1998 was far and away the largest of any measured by Gallup since 1978.  As Jones notes, Clinton's Jan. 27, 1998, address came just days after revelations about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky came to light.  Clinton ignored the matter entirely, focusing on his administration's domestic accomplishments -- most notably a balanced federal budget -- and rolling out a variety of pocketbook programs related to education, welfare and Social Security.

The Clinton rise in 1998 is clearly an anomaly as compared to the other 23 State of the Union speeches referenced by Jones. So what then to make of the Democratic talking point that Bush has regularly enjoyed a spurt in the polls following the State of the Union? 

As Fix friend Mark Blumenthal writes at Mystery Pollster, the polls referenced by Democrats came out immediately following Bush's speech, providing quick-and-dirty first impressions of the speeches.  Blumenthal cites Gallup data showing that presidents regularly get positive reviews in the immediate aftermath of the speech, likely due to the fact that folks who willingly participate in these surveys -- and watch the State of the Union -- are partisans of the president and not necessarily representative of the electorate at large.

Another potential reason for the short-term boost is that for an hour in primetime, the president has a chance to lay out his vision for the country with no counter-message being shouted from the other side.

Where does that leave us? Like most rhetoric in politics, take the spin from both sides with a grain of salt.  If history proves to be a guide, Bush should get a bump in the quickie polls out today, but any long-term boost is more difficult to predict as it may depend more on outside events (Iraq, oil prices etc.) than the public's assessment of Bush's agenda.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 1, 2006; 11:41 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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