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Trump’s State of the Union polled well … because Republicans watched it

State of the Union audiences generally skew toward the president’s party.

President Donald Trump departs the chamber of the House of Representatives after delivering the State of the Union address in February 2019.
President Donald Trump departs the chamber of the House of Representatives after delivering the State of the Union address in February 2019.
Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Most of the people who watched President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech liked it.

Polls from CNN and CBS News conducted shortly after the big address found that viewers generally approved of what the president had to say. That makes sense, because generally, a greater proportion of people who watch the State of the Union address tend to be from the president’s party. In other words, of course Republican viewers thought Trump did a good job.

A CNN poll conducted immediately after Trump’s speech found that 59 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to the address, compared to 48 percent last year and 57 percent in 2017, when he delivered an address to a joint session of Congress, a sort of pseudo-State of the Union that typically takes place after the president is first sworn in.

But as CNN notes, Trump’s high approval ratings for his 2019 speech are due at least in part to the partisan nature of the audience. In fact, the speech had the “largest partisan tilt measured in any CNN instant poll following a presidential address to Congress back to 2001,” journalist Jennifer Agiesta wrote. People who watched this year’s State of the Union were 17 points likelier than the general public to identify as Republicans, and Republicans, of course, liked what Trump had to say.

Eighty-seven percent of Republican viewers had a very positive reaction to Trump’s speech, as did 57 percent of independents; 64 percent of Democrats, however, had a negative reaction.

The CBS News poll had similar findings. According to the survey, 76 percent of Americans who watched the State of the Union approved of Trump’s performance, and 24 percent disapproved. But the audience was more Republican than the American populace, per CBS:

In the latest CBS national poll released last month, 25 percent of Americans identified themselves as Republicans. Among those who watched Tuesday night’s address, that figure was 43 percent, and Republicans helped bolster the overall approval of the address.

Just because viewers liked the speech doesn’t necessarily mean they think it will make much of a difference. In the CNN poll, 53 percent of viewers said they didn’t think the president would succeed in fostering more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Respondents to the CBS News poll were slightly more optimistic, with 56 percent saying the speech would do more to unite the country and 36 percent saying it wouldn’t.

According to both polls, viewers liked what Trump said on items such as the economy, immigration, and national security — but again, this was largely Trump preaching to the choir, as most presidents do during the State of the Union.

A lot of Trump’s speech sounded nice. A lot of what he said also wasn’t real.

The White House billed Trump’s State of the Union as a bipartisan address ahead of the event with a theme of “choosing greatness.” (Behind the scenes, he reportedly was annoyed the speech might be too nice and tried to make it harsher.) And parts of the speech sounded very good — Trump talked about joint efforts to address the opioid crisis and criminal justice reform. He celebrated job growth for women and called for ending HIV transmission in the US by 2030.

Of course, other parts of the speech were not so nice, like when Trump insisted Democratic investigations of him need to end. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. And he made multiple misleading statements and exaggerations.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote, there was a lot to like about Trump’s speech — but much of it doesn’t line up with reality. Trump called for a rejection of the “politics of revenge,” but he just oversaw the longest government shutdown in American history because he refused to compromise with Democrats. He said he wants people to come into the US legally, but he’s tried to cut legal immigration. He touted an economic boom, but until he took office, he rejected the same numbers showing the economy was strong.

Trump’s speech could have been a victory lap, but it wasn’t, per Klein:

Instead, Trump delivered his address with Speaker Nancy Pelosi looming over his shoulder, a reminder of the midterm election he just lost. He spoke having delayed the State of the Union due to a government shutdown he demanded and subsequently lost. He spoke with an approval rating of 41 percent — lower than his predecessor, Barack Obama, during the worst of the Great Recession.

Trump hasn’t yet taken a victory lap on his State of the Union approval ratings, but at some point, he probably will. If and when he does, it’s important to remember that the audience was largely a friendly one. And a lot of what he said doesn’t line up with reality.

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