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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

What is it like to attend a Donald Trump Mega-Rally?

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16

Supporters attend a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire

There are probably two questions I get from people, more than anything else, when they hear I spent a week in New Hampshire covering the primary.

The first question: “What’s it like to go to one of Trump’s big rallies?” The other went something like, “Where does his support come from?”

I attended the Trump mega-event at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, NH, before the primary, but I’m just sitting down to write about it because I was busy doing other things.

As it turns out, two weeks later, Trump is still relevant. The Trumpeters are still coming out in force, and not only is he still making headlines, he is an extremely potent candidate.

I understand why I get these questions from so many people. Trump is an extremely popular, but divisive candidate. A lot of people strongly support the guy, and a lot of people really dislike him. Like cilantro, few are ambivalent about Trump. You don’t need numbers to tell you that, but I’ll give you some anyway.

Based on FiveThirtyEight polling averages, 33 percent of Republicans views Trump favorably, while 58 percent view him unfavorably, giving him a net favorability of -25, the worst of the 11 Republicans in the race before Iowa. Some consider Ted Cruz divisive as well, but his net favorability is only -7.

Gallup brought in Democrats and Independents, and it got even uglier for Trump. Defining “Republican” much differently, his net favorability was +27 among Republicans, but -27 among Independents and a staggering -70 among Democrats. Those final two numbers were by far the worst of anyone in the field.

Does this have predictive value? No. Someone like John Kasich doesn’t rouse these emotions with anybody, good or bad, with +7 net favorability among Republicans, -1 with Independents and -7 among Democrats. Time will tell if that is a winning strategy, or merely a strategy to ensure that he’s watching the NCAA Final Four from his couch.

A Trump Mega-Event

Trump generates big crowds. Some of this has to do with the fact that he hosts few events, counter to the traditional retail strategy that Chris Christie and John Kasich followed of trying to host 100+ town halls. It limits interaction with voters, but it brings a superstar, larger than life quality to the stage.

Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the East Coast Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs, holds around 10,000 people. The setup featured a big stage, like a rock concert, and probably had 5,000 people present, which was likely at least 4,000 more people than any other event in the New Hampshire primary campaign. Oh, did I mention that this was all during a blizzard?

Really, a Trump mega-rally is part rock concert, part WWE match. The mood inside is electric. You walk in, and people are excited. Many are there to support the candidate, others to feed their curiosity, and there are even those decked out in Trump gear that wouldn’t vote for him in a million years.

We walked in, and headed for the pit in front of the stage. What do we notice? A lot of young people. I mean, everyone from teenagers on up. A lot of veterans. A lot of people wearing camo.

As the crowd waits for Trump to take the stage, there is a long video playing above the stage of clips about his life, his family, his business success, and so on.

Perhaps the oddest part came next, with a special message for protesters. The PA announcement states, “He supports the first amendment just as much as he supports the second amendment. However, some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality.”

He went on to mention that if any protesters are near you, simply shout “Trump! Trump! Trump!” until security can escort them out.

Various speakers from the state party and other supporters, including a veteran, spoke early on.

Before the man of the hour appears on stage, another short video plays, starting with the pundits who doubt him, and ending on a high note – celebrating his family and supporters.

Starting out, Trump takes time to introduce his family, with his four kids and his wife, Melania. She’s not a big speaker, but at Donald’s urging, she spoke for a short time, and then gave way to Ivanka Trump to speak to the crowd.

It’s highly produced and choreographed, until the very moment Trump takes the microphone. He knows what he wants to say, but he has such a high level of interaction with the audience that his speech is basically stream-of-consciousness.

What was his speech like? Almost zero policy specifics, but he lets people know exactly how he feels.

“Very soon we’re gonna start saying Merry Christmas again.”

“We're gonna have so many great things…we’re gonna have a better country. We’re gonna have better services. We’re gonna have better airports and hospitals, and we’re gonna pay less for them.”

“The politicians are doing horrible, horrible deals…They are smart people, but they’re working for themselves.”

“A recent poll just came out, and I am beating Hillary so badly in the general election.”

“We have people coming into this country, where we have absolutely no idea who they are, where they come from. Are they ISIS? Maybe, maybe not.”

“We have 179,000 illegal, criminal immigrants…We're bringing them back where they came from…and they're never ever coming back to our country again.”

Everyone knows his one-liners, and are delighted to join in. He’ll ask, “What are we going to do?” And the crowd replies, “Build a wall!” “Who the hell is going to pay for the wall?” he said. “MEXICO!” they scream. Yet, he wisely weaved this line into an issue that hits very close to home for too many Granite Staters, about how the wall that will stop heroin from getting to New Hampshire.

He’ll be on a roll, and then he’ll just stop if he sees or hears something interesting, like a Trump impersonator or a vocal supporter, invite them to the front, and chat with them for a moment.

A group of American University students saw Trump beyond the bright lights, while he was staying at our hotel. In each case, we got about 30 seconds of a nice guy who stopped to say hello and chat, and about 30 seconds of the Trump we see on the debate stage, calling Jeb “a stiff.”

So, Who Are These Trump Supporters

Trump’s incredible support base can’t simply be explained away by saying they’re a bunch of racists and bigots. Those messages can be found in his rhetoric, but in the rhetoric of other candidates as well. And I wouldn’t suggest that his supporters are all racists.

I talked to several supporters that haven’t felt positive effects from President Obama’s economic recovery efforts, and have seen problems that goes far beyond 2008. Small towns are shrinking. Young people have been moving away for a generation. Textile jobs are gone and aren’t coming back. Wages aren’t growing, but bills are mounting.

Some feel that he is a rugged, say what he means, modern incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt. I heard this explanation from supporters on numerous occasions at the rally.

Then, there are supporters who realistically sit on a spectrum between Trump and Bernie Sanders. At the very least, they say, they’ll be supporting a candidate who doesn’t owe anyone favors. He doesn’t have big donors or special interests holding him to promises. He’s so rich that he can’t be bought.

New Hampshire voters are famous for shopping around and meeting all the candidates, even multiple times, even after they’ve decided who to support. But several people I spoke with at the rally that traditionally take time to think about their vote, support Trump and won’t be going to any other events.

If you’re old, young, evangelical, or secular, you could be a Trump supporter. That versatility will make him a viable candidate in many states as the campaign season continues, particularly if the field remains larger than 2 or 3 candidates.


Watch my video on what it's like to attend a Trump mega-rally »

Snapchat Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16, takes to Snapchat as he reports live from New Hampshire

Snapchat on Storify

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