So we know that President Trump’s claim Thursday morning on Twitter was inaccurate. “45.6 million people watched,” he wrote, “the highest number in history.” It isn’t the highest number in general (there is no highest number), and it isn’t the highest number for a presidential speech (the biggest in the last few decades was from Bill Clinton’s 1993 speech to a joint session of Congress), and it isn’t the highest number for a State of the Union address (Barack Obama’s viewership in 2010 was bigger).
State of the Union addresses — and other presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress, like Trump’s last year — are fairly popular, by current standards. The viewership generally lands somewhere around where the Oscars are, a good bit above the Grammys. (Especially this year, when Grammy viewership sagged back down to where it had been in the mid-aughts.) It’s not at Super Bowl levels of interest, but, then, few things are.
Looking at that chart, you may think, hey, Trump’s ratings were pretty good in 2017 and 2018! And that’s true, after following the sliding ratings of the years prior.
If we break out presidential speeches by themselves using data from Nielsen, the trend looks a little different. The first speeches by new presidents have, for the last three new presidents, shown an uptick over the final speeches of their predecessors. For George W. Bush, the increase was small. For Obama it was larger; for Trump, larger still.
Over time, though, those ratings started to slip. Clinton and Bush saw some exceptions; Bush’s speech shortly before the Iraq War began drew big ratings. Otherwise, speeches later in presidencies tend to be less popular than earlier ones.
What’s more, Trump’s starting speeches have started lower than Clinton’s and Obama’s. Here, they’re all overlaid.
Trump’s speech on Tuesday had fewer viewers than Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2010 — and Obama’s joint-session speech in 2009 and Trump’s joint-session speech last year. Eight of the 25 joint-session and State of the Union speeches before Trump’s this week had more viewers.
And that came despite smaller populations. Just under 14 percent of the population of America watched Trump’s speech.
Sixteen of the 25 preceding speeches had more of the country watching. Nielsen uses a different percentage metric, including only households with televisions. Trump’s speech on Tuesday underperformed 15 of the last 25 speeches on that metric.
Most of those speeches that Trump outperformed were from Obama, whose last five State of the Union addresses were among the lowest rated in history. Trump even mocked him for it at one point.
Trump’s ratings were down 4.6 percent from last year. If recent history is any guide, they’ll be down more next year. And given that he just had the “highest number in history,” he’s set a high bar for himself to beat.