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State of the Union Viewership 1993 to 2018: Did Trump Beat Obama?

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

On January 30, 2018, President Donald J. Trump delivers his first State of the Union Address

Trump’s detractors want to present his SOTU viewership statistics in a way that deflates his influence. Trump’s enthusiasts want to present the numbers in a way that aggrandizes his influence. Alvarism just wants to know the truth in order to best advise our office holders. No other analyst to our knowledge adjusted for population growth or added digital viewers. The result of our analysis shows that nothing much has changed in nearly 30 years except for how viewers choose to watch the speech. When digital viewer projections are added to the numbers, Trump has beaten Obama’s viewership by about 11% in 2017 and 2018:

The implication? Whether you love or hate Trump, curb your enthusiasm – the trend shows nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the most alarming thing about this chart is that the Islamist terror attacks of 9/11, dot-com bust, and Iraq War gave crescendo to Bush’s 2003 record engagement, but the housing bust didn’t bump viewership in 2008 to the highest point on this chart. In fact, 2008 was the lowest viewership except for Clinton’s last year in office. It seems as though the long-term and egregious impact of the housing bust was never properly appreciated.

The point about the housing bust is critical. People are apt to tune in when they are either concerned or enthused; therefore, using SOTU viewership as a gauge of Presidential approval is fairly banal. The amount of grand concern over the housing bust should have shot 2008 viewership through the ceiling. Meanwhile some claim Obama’s 2009 reception was “historic” when in fact, it doesn’t even rise to the engagement of G.W. Bush in 2003 because of the Iraq War. Trump exceeded Obama by eleven percent.

I’m personally not a fan of modern political speeches, even delivered by politicians that I favor. Carefully constructed emotive content, exploitation of poster children, propaganda techniques, fallacies, and fact-challenged assertions combine into an onslaught of insults against our intelligence and virtues. There’s not some grand conspiracy, it’s just that these techniques have proven to be effective, so politicians hire speechwriters who use them. Modern political speech seems to turn classic books into prophecy, such as Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, and Bertrand Russell’s The Impact of Science on Society.

On the other hand, I am incredibly interested in how effective political teams are at constructing public relations (PR), including speeches. Business PR is not so different from political PR. Businesses are responding to market demands, and engaging buyers. Politicians are responding to civic demands, and engaging voters. The market of American civics is massively diverse. There are many caucuses, nonprofits, third-parties, and thousands of lobbyists influencing policy and ideology in the USA.

Consequently, party-line devotees to the Democrats or Republicans are often disillusioned by legislation and agency actions that don’t seem “pure” to the party-line. If one politician could achieve everything they intend within our system of checks-and-balances, then our government might look more like a pantheon of warring pagan gods than a Republic with compromise and deference.

The current state of the union tradition was created for mass media broadcast over radio and terrestrial television. For most of our history, it was simply a written report. In the information age, the Constitution’s intent should be fulfilled with modern tools.

A stream of well-curated reports and data should be given to congress from the President on a quarterly basis. The President should open his engagement to formal exchanges between party and caucus leaders, and the American public should tune in to those proceedings. The emotive speeches decorated by a circus environment of phrase-by-phrase congressional adulation-clapping and protestation-sitting is incredibly vapid.

The Constitutional intent was to create understanding and synergy between the Executive and Legislative branches of our government. It remains unclear how that goal is achieved by foisting 20th century mass media artifacts, mass psychology tactics, and emotive manipulation upon the electorate.

If this widespread distortion of the SOTU historical ratings are indicative – very few Americans are aware of the facts and concepts presented here.

Some sources used in this analysis:

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