Partisan disagreements over the government shutdown in the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union (SOTU) Address cast a cloud of uncertainty over the speech. In the end, the shutdown came to a close, Speaker Pelosi relented, and the president delivered his third address to a joint session of Congress. Most importantly, however, the president’s approval rating improved significantly, due mainly to a rare jump among Independents.
Historically, presidents do not receive significant increases among Independents following SOTUs/addresses to a joint session; as shown below, the window for movement among this group is typically narrow. Rather, as I argued here, with both a president’s base and Independents typically locked in and static, bumps in approval, however modest, are usually driven by improvement among members of the opposite party. In particular, this was the case for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in their first address. See table 1 below for the pre- and post-address Gallup approval ratings among Independents and overall:
The 2019 SOTU has changed that calculation. Trump’s post-address approval rating improved considerably over his January numbers (37% approve/59% disapprove in January to 44% approve/52% disapprove in February). This is due in large part to the +6 shift in approval among Independents – the most significant movement in thirteen years, since Bush’s 2006 SOTU – as GOP approval improved by just one point and Democratic approval remained fixed at 5%.
With Republicans locked in and Democrats at record low approval numbers, it’s clear Independents remain essential for any improvement in the president’s approval rating. Trump’s current 38% among Independents is slightly below his high of 42% with this bloc, recorded in June 2018. Not surprisingly, Trump’s overall approval rating for that read was 45% approve/50% disapprove – his best approval numbers since January 2017, immediately following his swearing-in.
With improvement among Democrats practically impossible, President Trump’s best bet to boost his approval rating heading into the 2020 contest is to keep his base locked in and work to get his approval rating among Independents into the low to mid 40s. To that end, the 2019 SOTU was a step in the right direction.