President Trump’s first State of the Union address did little to change the hearts and minds of a group of swing voters who liked his call for more vocational education and paid family leave but rated the speech overall as not terribly convincing.
“He looked presidential, he said all the right things, but let’s see what he implements,” said Lauren Price, a retired government worker who watched the speech Tuesday night with other voters as part of a focus group organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Matthew Mielke, a business contractor from Washington, D.C., said Trump spoke well, was on message and looked presidential.
“But we always grade him on a weird curve,” Mielke said. “If he’s not foaming at the mouth and screaming, we say he did a good job.”
Overall, the dozen voters in the group rated the speech “on the plus side of mediocre,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, the message testing firm that organized the group on behalf of the policy center.
When asked if Trump said anything during the address that would have changed the way they voted in the 2016 presidential election, all 12 voters said no.
“There was not a single Trump voter who after watching that speech abandoned him and went for Hillary (Clinton),” Thau said. “And there were no Hillary voters who said I should have abandoned her and gone to him.”
The group also found Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who gave the Democratic response, equally unconvincing. Some described him as a fresh face but said they don’t know what he stands for.
The dozen voters who participated in the discussion were chosen because their allegiance has swung between the Democratic and Republican candidates in the last two presidential elections. Seven voted for Clinton in the 2016 election and Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 race. Five voted for Trump in 2016 and President Barack Obama four years earlier.
The group included seven men and five women, all of whom live in Maryland, Va. and Washington, D.C. Three were African-American, one was Latino and the rest were Caucasian.
Trump scored his highest marks from the group when he talked about the importance of vocational education and paid family leave. His remarks about opening “great vocational schools” went over especially well with the Clinton-Romney voters, while the Trump-Obama supporters liked his call for paid family leave.
“I believe in vocational training – not everyone needs to go to college,” said Dario Muralles, who voted for Clinton and Romney.
Trump voters also gave the president high marks for saying that cutting drug prices would be a priority and for calling for terminally ill patients to have access to medicines that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Everybody should have the right to try anything that’s out there,” said Marie Anderson, who voted for both Trump and Obama.
Trump’s lowest marks of the night came when he claimed that his administration had ended the war on “beautiful, clean coal.”
“Neither side bought that argument,” Thau said.
And neither side was optimistic about the chances that Republicans and Democrats would be able to work together over the next year to solve the nation’s problems.
“If the idea was to sell to them that there was going to be an outbreak of bipartisanship this year, the speech didn’t clear that bar,” Thau said.
David Stoker, an Alexandria, Va., student who was a Clinton/Romney supporter, said the panel discussion left him with hope that progress could be made on some issues, such as education. But while there were some good ideas in Trump’s speech, Stoker said, “I kept thinking, you’re taking credit for some things you’re not responsible for.”
Francis Marshall, a landscaper from Sterling, Va., said he would have liked for Trump to touch on some issues that he didn’t mention, such as the protests that erupted last year in Charlottesville, Va., at a white supremacist rally.
“You could tell someone else wrote his speech again,” said Marshall, who voted for Trump and Obama. “It sounded political instead of him speaking the truth. If you don’t like something just keep it real. Don’t play politics. Speak your mind, and that way I know where you’re coming from, like President Bush did. Bush told you what he was thinking. He stuck to his guns, and I appreciate that.”
Joseph Madary, a retired Air Force officer from Gaithersburg, Md., didn’t vote for Trump, but thought his speech went over well, particularly his shout-outs to firefighters and the military.
One of Trump’s biggest applause lines of the night came when he talked aboutstanding for the national anthem. But Mielke, who voted for both Trump and Obama, thought that seemed out of place for a State of the Union address.
“I want him to speak to the real issues, not just to people protesting a little bit,” he said. “They have those rights. I liked it when he spoke about issues and not just about things that inflamed his base.”
Price said she voted for Trump because she thought he could make a difference onimmigration. But now, she said, “I have buyer’s remorse.”
“This man has no filter,” she said. “No one can rein him in. And that wall? I’m not paying for it. You said Mexico was going to pay for it. Now we’re all going to pay for it? He’s going back on his word. He has been lying ever since he took the oath.”