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Polling analysis: State of the Union speeches attract high approval ratings

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump received high marks from those who tuned in to watch last night:  75 percent of Americans said they approved of his speech. But largely positive responses are nothing new for State of the Union addresses, which historically are more likely to be watched by members of the president's own party.  

This year was no exception, and in fact, the approval rating for Mr. Trump's speech was slightly lower than that received by his two immediate predecessors.  Nor does a positive evaluation of the State of the Union seem to affect public opinion in the long run when it comes to a president's job approval rating.

The reception of Donald Trump's State of the Union address by those who watched it was nearly identical to that of last year, in his address to Congress shortly after he took office.  In both cases, three in four speech watchers approved of the president's speech.

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But when looking back further, even greater majorities of Americans who watched the first State of the Union speeches by Barack Obama in 2010 and George W. Bush in 2002 said they approved of the proposals laid out in them.

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These high approval ratings – both then and now – have much to do with who actually watches State of the Union speeches.  Forty-two percent of speech watchers last night identified themselves as Republican – a much larger percentage than the 24 percent seen in the most recent CBS News poll. In contrast, the percentage of Democrats and independents was smaller – down seven points among Democrats and 11 points among independents.  In 2017, these percentages were similar.

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And the independents who watched the speech appear to be more favorable towards President Trump than independent nationwide.  Forty-five percent of independents who watched the speech said they considered themselves Trump supporters, compared to the 32 percent who called themselves opponents of the president. In the most recent CBS News national poll, just 31 percent of independents said they approved of how Donald Trump was handling his job as president, while 60 percent of independents disapproved.

A similar trend in reverse can be seen among those who watched Barack Obama's first State of the Union address:  the percentage of Democrats was higher than that of Americans nationwide.  Forty-four percent of speech watchers in 2010 were Democrats and 21 percent were Republicans.  In a CBS News poll conducted right before that speech, the breakdown was more balanced between the parties: 36 percent Democrat and 28 percent Republican.

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What's more, a positive response to the State of the Union seems to do little to improve public opinion in the long run, when it comes to evaluating the job a president is doing.  Both President Obama's and President Bush's approval ratings dropped slightly after their first State of the Union Addresses, when compared with what had been recorded earlier. Obama had a net positive rating before his speech, and that became split afterwards.  For George W. Bush, his extremely high approval rating in the months following the 9/11 attacks also slipped.

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