YouTube Approval Ratings

As of this writing, President Obama’s approval rating is 40%, according to Gallup, down from about 51% a year ago.  I’ve written about the voting aspects of YouTube before, so I was interested in how the YouTube ecosystem reacted to the latest State of the Union speech, as compared to last year’s speech.  For both speeches, I looked at the numbers for three different sets of videos: the official White House release, the Wall Street Journal’s release, and one put up by the New York Times (links to each below).

The first thing that became apparent is that the “approval ratings” for videos of the president’s speech were always higher than the president’s approval ratings according to the polls.  The official White House copy of the 2014 speech got 1,961 “Likes”, and 1,429 “Dislikes”, or a 58% approval rating.  This was the lowest of the batch, but still considerably higher than the poll numbers.  By comparison, the official release of the 2013 speech had an astonishing 81% approval rating.  That’s obviously a marked drop, but consistent with the relative drop in poll numbers.  More people also watched and voted on the 2014 speech: 45,000 more views (a 12% increase) and 1,000 more votes (a 50% increase).

The Wall Street Journal version showed a different trend: a drastic drop in views of more than 80% (from 374,004 in 2013 to 71,935 in 2014), but a comparable approval rating (67% to 61%).  Finally, the New York Times showed exactly the opposite trend: more than double the views (245,700 to 504,950), and an *increase* in approval ratings (61% to 68%).  In addition, the total number of votes tripled on the Times version, from 1,404 to 4,422.

That’s a lot of data, but what does it mean?  The first thing I would take away from these numbers is that it was a fairly successful speech, in the sense that many more people liked it than not.  57% is pretty good.  True, it’s not as good as 87%, which the 2013 Inauguration Speech got, but still a significant majority.

Also, the sample size is significant: about a million people watched the speech on YouTube, internationally, and it seems like the general trend is that the number of people who are watching the speech that way is increasing.  For comparison, the New York Times release of the president’s 2009 Inauguration speech got a mere 53,815 views, compared to 1.16 million for the 2013 speech, or twenty times more.  Possibly more importantly, participation is going up, not just viewership.  The percentage of people voting on videos, as opposed to just watching them, is increasing.

Perhaps the most troubling trend is the drop in viewership of the Wall Street Journal versions of the videos.  The Wall Street Journal is considered a conservative publication, so the possibility of a five-fold drop in viewership of the State of the Union among conservatives online could indicate a radical disengagement.  It may simply be a failure of marketing on the part of the Wall Street Journal, but it is worth investigating.  The corresponding increase in the New York Times versions only stress the point.

Finally, the demographics of YouTube are most likely very different than the demographics of television, and certainly than the demographics of households being polled.  YouTube is also international, so many of people voting on the State of the Union videos may not be American, and the president has generally been popular abroad.  The voting sample for YouTube is also more likely to skew younger than that of the polls.  In other words, the YouTube audience is more likely to be in the president’s political base.

There is no question that if current trends continue, the information revealed by YouTube viewership and voting numbers will be increasingly important to politics and beyond.

Video Sources:
2013 State of the Union: White House Official
2014 State of the Union: White House Official
2013 State of the Union: Wall Street Journal
2014 State of the Union: Wall Street Journal
2013 State of the Union: New York Times
2014 State of the Union: New York Times
2009 Inauguration Speech: New York Times
2013 Inauguration Speech: New York Times

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