What Difference Will Obama’s Speech Make?

If history is any guide, not much. Nevertheless, speculation abounds. Over at Political Wire, David Moore Johnson writes:

Remember, traditionally after a President addresses the nation on an issue we see between a 5% to 10% increase in support.

This is a fantastical statement, one which a reader (who I happen to know is a political scientist) quickly convinced Goddard to correct:

A Political Wire reader emails to say that a systematic study of whether presidential speeches have an impact on poll numbers is reported in the book, On Deaf Ears, and finds shows that in general, major presidential speeches do not lead to a significant shift even in short-term polls.

On Deaf Ears, by political scientist George Edwards (here), shows that big presidential speeches have almost no systematic impact on presidential approval. Edwards surveys public opinion before and after every televised presidential speech between 1981-2001 and concludes:

…statistically significant changes in approval rarely follow a televised presidential address. Typically, the president’s ratings hardly move at all. Most changes are well within the margin of error— and many of them show a loss of approval.

But couldn’t this speech be different? Nate Silver thinks so:

The truth is, in fact, that this is a speech the conservatives at the Weekly Standard and elsewhere out to be pretty nervous about. When Bill Clinton delivered his big speech to the Congress on health care 16 years ago, his approval rating shot up by 10 points almost instantenously (sic).

Edwards reports this same 10-point change after Clinton’s speech in September 1993.

But there’s one problem: both Silver and Edwards focus only on Gallup data, and other polls don’t show that same shift. (Silver doesn’t cite a source of data, but I gather it’s Gallup.) Here is a graph of all the presidential approval polls for Clinton in 1993-1994 (courtesy of Roper). I include a smoothed trend line, and highlight the pre- and post-speech Gallup polls in red to show how they are misleading.


The trendline shows no increase in Clinton’s approval immediately after the speech.

Silver argues against a Weekly Standard post by Mary Katherine Ham, who claims that the public has already made up its mind and a speech from Obama is not likely to help. Silver writes:

This argument has it pretty much backward. People like Mary Katherine Ham have heard Obama talk a lot about health care—but that’s because it’s Mary Katherine Ham’s job to pay attention to everything the White House does. It’s not the job of an ordinary voter in Ohio or Florida. And whether design or by poor execution, Obama hasn’t really had a moment that would resonate with those folks. Two thirds people like these are confused about what the Democrats’ health care package actually entails, and are presumably quite willing to get some clarity from Obama.

While the public may not know a lot about specific health care reform proposals, the people most likely to tune into the speech or coverage thereof probably have already made up their minds.

This speech could impact opinion if it drives the news cycle such that the tenor of media coverage shifts away from documenting the loud voices in opposition to portraying some sort of consensus view that reform is necessary, certain reforms favored by Obama or other Democrats will be effective, etc. Only then would a new set of messages filter to less attentive citizens, and that would take some time. In any case, such a consensus doesn’t appear to exist and I suspect that conflict will continue to prove more newsworthy.

So don’t expect the speech to affect the polls much at all. Health care reform is going to be won (or lost) in the backrooms of Capitol Hill, not on network television.

(Hat tip to Matt Grossmann for suggesting a post on this topic.)

UPDATE: See also Gary Langer on the short-lived effects of Clinton’s speech on actual opinion about health care reform. Here again, however, it would be interesting to see more than just ABC’s polls, especially since their “post-speech” data is based on a single poll conducted “the night of his address to the nation.”

6 Responses to What Difference Will Obama’s Speech Make?

  1. Jonathan Bernstein September 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    John —

    I certainly agree, and I’ll also point out that even if by some chance Obama’s approval rate spiked up a bit, it still isn’t very likely to change votes on the Hill at this point. Here’s my reaction to Nate’s piece:


  2. Jeff Lazarus September 8, 2009 at 4:17 pm #

    This is a perfect example of a threat to internal validity. I’m keeping a copy of both Silver’s article and the graph you posted to use on my undergraduates the next time I teach methods. Thanks!

  3. Matt Grossmann September 8, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    Regardless of the effect on Presidential popularity, we should not expect big increases in public support for the health care proposal itself.

    The expected high point in public support for Presidential policy proposals, in my view, is the day that they are introduced. A public pro/con discussion typically raises doubts and reduces support. For the same reason, contested ballot initiatives typically need to start with 2/3 support in order to win a majority on election day.

    The White House knew that they were in a race against time when they set the August deadline for health care but Congress missed it. Congressional supporters did not feel the same time pressure. A bill might still pass, but not with high public support. If Senators are hoping for a big turn around in public support due to improved Presidential marketing, it ain’t gonna happen and we should not expect it to happen.

  4. James Conran September 9, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    One problem: can this research control for whether the president makes a good speech or not? Obviously what counts as a good speech is a subjective. But maybe it’s true that a good speech can move public opinion somewhat.

  5. Joel September 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    Yes, a “dummy” variable is clearly warranted!

  6. Matt Jarvis September 9, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    I’m with Matt on the likely non-effects, mostly because of reception/acceptance.
    Reception: only us political junkies will be watching.
    Acceptance: the junkies already have decided their positions.

    Matt’s right about the typical trend on initiatives, but I seem to remember a couple in the last few years that went counter to that. Usually it requires the initiative campaign to be fought over something different than the plain reading of the initiative summary. Methinks that health care reform will be WAY too complicated to move past soundbites.