Presidential Approval and Applause

January 26, 2015

(This article was first published on More or Less Numbers, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Some may have seen a twitter post about spurious correlations that myself and others mentioned on twitter.  Basically this was a joke about how correlation can be found in many things that certainly have no influence over each other.  I mention this because this post may or may not be in that category 😉

About this time last year I looked at the two most recent State of the Union speeches and talked about the political priorities ostensibly shown in each.  For those that don’t know, The State of the Union is the speech that the President of the United States delivers at the beginning of each year to a joint session of Congress (that is, both House and Senate).  For the most part or at least traditionally the aim of this speech is to outline the priorities for the next year for the President’s office and to give a bit of an idea where the United States is at in general, or the “state of the union”.

One of the more nuanced parts of the speech is that there are periods where the President is either interrupted with applause by members who feel what he is saying is good, or where he pauses to allow for applause (typically from his party).  The speeches are fairly lengthy.  The past several years these speeches have averaged about an hour.  Turns out applause is definitely a big part of the speech (it’s polite afterall).  For President Obama’s terms in his speeches, the word “applause” appears more than any other word (outside articles).  If applause lasts about 10 seconds on average, we’re looking somewhere around 12-13 minutes of total applause during his speeches.  This doesn’t take account the length of the applause times as in the text of the speeches it is only shown as “(applause)”.

So what’s the point other than that’s a lot of clapping?  I wanted to look at if there was any similarities between the applause being given and the President’s approval rating.  Appropriately, I’ll be using a popular graph theme from the political analysis etc. site fivethirtyeight to display this brief analysis.  The theme was actually put together in R here, by Austin Clemens (thanks!).

So just by looking at the two lines, one indicating the number of times applause occurs during the speech, the other indicating the % approval (though the scale on the left not in % terms), we can see that it doesn’t change a lot.  Except for two years, 2010 and 2014.  In 2010 he received 50% more applause than in the other years and about 30% more in 2014.

The question becomes, is the applause tactical to show support for the president by the party in a period of lessening approval?  The correlation coefficient was -.50, but as with spurious correlations, this very well could speak nothing of the influence of approval on the amount of applause.  In general just looking at the graph, the percentage change isn’t the same for Applause and Approval however we can see that in general the change year over year between Applause and Approval certainly has an inverse relationship.   Meaning the line moves up for Applause between 2009 and 2010 then the line moves down for Approval rating for the same period.

Showing support and unity for a party leader by applauding is certainly reasonable, especially when support may be lacking from the general public.  Guessing as to whether this is considered before in response to the approval rating is more difficult.  Then again, it’s a bit more fun to think that members of Congress would tactically use this:

  Code for this will appear on my Github page in the near future.

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