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Why Trump ignored climate change and gun violence during the State of the Union

Democrats care. His base? Not so much.

President Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 5, 2019.
President Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 5, 2019.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump didn’t so much as mention climate change or gun violence during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but instead focused on issues like immigration and the economy.

That seemed like an egregious oversight to people who view climate change as an existential threat and gun violence as an epidemic the government should be doing more to control.

But if you’re one of those people, you’re likely a Democrat. And Trump really wasn’t speaking to you.

Trump’s choice of topics reflected what his base cares about

The Pew public opinion poll of American adults conducted last month indicates Democrats and Republicans are further apart than ever in terms of which issues they view as being the most important ones facing the country.

Pew Research Center

According to a Pew analysis of the polling, the issues gap is especially wide when it comes to climate change, health care, and immigration:

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, health care costs, education, the environment, Medicare and assistance for poor and needy people top the list of priorities (all are named as top priorities by seven-in-ten or more Democrats). None of these is among the five leading top priorities for Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (Medicare and health care costs rank sixth and seventh, respectively). Conversely, the two priorities named by more than seven-in-ten Republicans – terrorism and the economy – are cited by far smaller shares of Democrats.

The partisan gap is particularly wide for a handful of issues. For instance, two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners identify global climate change as a top priority, while just 21% of Republicans and Republican leaners say the same. Similarly, although only 31% of Democrats say that strengthening the military should be a top priority, 65% of Republicans hold this view.

Though gun control isn’t included in Pew’s latest polling, a Gallup poll from last year found a similar polarized dynamic with that issue:

In January [2018], Gallup also found a large partisan gap in satisfaction with the country’s current gun laws. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans said they are satisfied with the country’s gun laws, while 79% of Democrats said they are dissatisfied.

On Tuesday, Trump focused his speech on issues of concern to his Republican base — particularly the economy and immigration. While he tried to portray himself as a unifier during the speech, he did so with platitudes about “unity” and “greatness,” not by signaling a new willingness to address issues that are top priorities for Democrats.

Trump did talk a little bit about infrastructure and health care, two issues Pew’s research indicates are more important to Democrats than Republicans. But Trump doesn’t actually have an infrastructure plan, and his comments about health care were the opposite of true — he claimed “the next major priority” for him is “to protect patients with preexisting conditions,” while in reality he has spent his first two years in office trying to strip legal protections from those same people.

Trump was mostly preaching to the choir, and the choir liked it

Polls conducted by CNN and CBS News indicated Trump’s State of the Union was mostly well received, but that’s not because Trump won over liberals — it’s because the people watching were mostly Republicans to begin with.

As Vox’s Emily Stewart detailed:

Trump’s high approval ratings for his 2019 speech [CNN found that 59 percent of viewers had a “very positive reaction] 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.

In short, Democrats and Republicans aren’t just polarized in terms of what issues they care about — they’re also polarized about whether it’s worth paying attention to what Trump says in the first place.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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