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Trump used his State of the Union address to appeal to blue collar workers, but was it enough?

February 5, 2020, 8:25 PM UTC

During his third State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump made a direct appeal to the blue-collar Americans who helped propel him into office in 2016.

The 78-minute speech, which included a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony for right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh, defined the themes that will come to dominate Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and a potential second term in the White House. Topping that list is what Trump is calling a “blue-collar boom.” 

“Since my election, the net worth of the bottom half of wage earners has increased by 47 percent—three times faster than the increase for the top 1%,” said Trump to applause. “After decades of flat and falling incomes, wages are rising fast—and, wonderfully, they are rising fastest for low-income workers, who have seen a 16% pay increase since my election.”

Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging spoke directly to those working-class Americans who felt left out of the economic boom under former President Barack Obama and alienated by the going-ons of establishment in Washington, D.C.

The calls to “drain the swamp” were effective: Hillary Clinton lost key rust-belt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the support of white, non-college-educated voters nationally. Many of those voters who swung right had come out to support Obama just four years before. 

But in 2020, the President faces a new and difficult challenge. He must convince these voters that he’s made their lives better: a more nuanced and uphill task than exploiting discontent.  

“We know the manufacturing sector in the U.S. has been experiencing contraction over the last six months,” says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate.com’s senior economic analyst.

The industry fell into its deepest slump in a decade this December as the trade war with China continued on. But Trump described the U.S. economy as the “best it has ever been,” and claimed we were in the midst of a “great American comeback.”

Laid-off factory workers may find that sentiment divorced from their own. 

“[This] might be viewed as a kind of ‘mission accomplished’ claim for the man who vowed to make America great again,” said Hamrick, referencing former President George W. Bush’s premature claims that the war in Iraq was successfully wrapping up. 

Trump has made a big point of trying to appeal to Midwest workers with talks of his trade deals and tariffs, but if they’re not feeling the difference in their personal economies, they’ll see through those claims, said Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. He pointed to the successful election of Democratic Congressman in Pennsylvania’s typically conservative 18th district as proof. Still, he says, “it’s better to say someone’s name than ignore them altogether.”

Early numbers, however, show that the President’s blue-collar begging amounted to little more than preaching to the choir.

Working America surveyed 1,255 registered and likely voters from Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina immediately after the State of the Union address and found that the speech served mostly as a rally for those who had already made up their minds to vote for Trump.

“Of the 2016 Trump voters who tuned into the SOTU, most have already made up their minds to support President Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020 (90%),” the survey, shared first with Fortune, found. “But the 2016 Trump voters who did not watch the SOTU are less sure about who they are voting for in 2020. Only 57% plan on supporting Trump in 2020.”

The median household income of those surveyed was $58,124, and 34% of those surveyed had a college degree. 

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