Why Americans “Tune Out” the State of the Union

With the State of the Union just a few hours away, the political science blog-o-sphere is all abuzz.  The essential reading list includes:

  • Can presidential speeches sway public opinion?  Jonathan Bernstein weighs in here.
  • Does the State of the Union help a presidnet’s approval  "No," according to John Sides.
  • Seth Masekt opines on the media spectacle that is the State of the Union, and notes the symbolic yet important role that Congress plays.
  • And Ben Lauderdale wins “chart of the day” with his graph of the ideology of State of the Union speeches from 1986-2012.

I wanted to address a different question: Is the State of the Union facing an existential threat?

I was asked this question recently, and my answer is generally “no.”  In short, while presidential speeches have witnessed a general decline in viewership of late, the State of the Union still commands considerable media attention.  For example, last year’s SOTU was watched in almost 25 million households according to Nielsen.  Monday’s Grammys, which captured “big ratings,” had a comparable audience, while Wednesday’s episode of American Idol was watched in about half the number of households as last year's SOTU.

Nonetheless, State of the Union viewership is in decline.  It’s important to note that a general decline in presidential speech viewership began sometime around the early 1980s, so the cause is likely systemic than transitory.  Thus, I’m skeptical that the SOTU drinking game is a long-term solution.  The question is therefore: Why the overall decline in presidential speech viewership?

In an APSR article published in 1999, Matt Baum and Samuel Kernell examine two plausible hypotheses.  First, declining viewership could be a function of political disaffection with the presidency.  In the present context, perhaps fewer people will watch tonight’s speech because they simply disapprove of Obama.  Second, Baum and Kernell hypothesize that with the advent of cable television and greater programming options, more Americans are simply changing the channel.

Baum and Kernell find no evidence for the first hypothesis: political disaffection has no effect on STOU viewership.  Additional research supports this view, finding that presidential approval is not a predictor of whether an individual watches a presidential speech (see a 2000 article by Reed Welch).  However, there is indeed considerable evidence that cable—and it’s greater array of programing options—has decreased the capacity for presidents to communicate “directly” to the American people. As they aptly put it: “What broadcast technology gave the president, cable technology appears to be taking away.”

I think it’s also important to point out the possibility that polarization is to blame as well.  It makes sense that Republicans are more likely to “tune out” tonight's State of the Union while Democrats are more likely to “tune in.”  And there is, indeed, some evidence to support this view.  For example, in the same study cited above, Welch found that respondents who were on the president’s side of the aisle and referred to themselves as “strong” partisans were more likely to watch a presidential speech while independents and those on the opposite side of the aisle were less likely to tune in.  In short, it seems likely that the usual partisan filtering--evident in numerous studies of media consumption--has decreased overall viewership as our politics have become increasingly polarized.

Finally, while the State of the Union isn’t facing an “existential threat” in the aggregate, the decline in viewership does matter.  According to an JOP article by Garry Young and William Perkins, the increase in alternative viewing choices brought by cable has decreased the impact of presidential rhetoric on public opinion (though I think these effects are small in magnitude).  In addition, according to an AJPS article by Markus Prior, there is evidence that the growth of cable and increase in media choices has led to greater knowledge gaps between those who prefer “news” and “entertainment.”  Jonathan Bernstein notes that the SOTU matters because it helps reveal the president’s policy positions for the coming year (even if the president isn't able to get those policies through Congress).  And finally, Matt Glassman has an excellent article on the symbolic importance of the State of the Union.  In short, the decline probably matters, just not as far as the president’s agenda or popularity are concerned.