ATLANTA -- The annual RedState Gathering, a conservative conference inspired by the popular blog, was not supposed to be Trump territory. RedState's outgoing editor-in-chief, Erick Erickson, has warned readers that Trump had been a "supporter of abortion rights," and of a "Canadian style universal healthcare system." He warned them that Trump's threat to mount an independent presidential bid would elect Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Last night, according to MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin, the RedState audience tuned into the debate and rolled with Trump. "There were wild hoots and shouts as he threatened to run as an independent if he didn’t like the nominee, mocked Rosie O’Donnell’s weight, and outright pandemonium broke out" when Trump condemned "political correctness." The Guardian's Ben Jacobs saw something else: "The jeers were meaningful and the cheers, well, they just were a sign of entertainment."
Today, with the benefit of sleep and hindsight, it was easy to find RedState Gathering attendees fretting about Trump's scattered and indecisive answer to whether he could run as an independent. Even people who sided with Trump on the issues were left cold by that.
"On immigration, people misquoted him and did him a disservice," said Patty Varner, a 63-year old Pennsylvania transplant living in Duluth, Ga. "It turned out to be true, the things he was saying about sanctuary cities."
That said, Varner wished that Trump had been a "team player," and understood that the American electorate "can't stand to have another Clinton win." Her sister, 66-year old Judy Hoover, chimed in to say that Trump had come off like a "wimp" when he failed to take a 2016 position.
"I didn't like the fact that he would not pledge not to run third party," she said.
To voters of a certain generation, talk of a self-funding third party campaign invokes a very specific nightmare: Ross Perot. It's erroneously but indelibly believed that the Texas billionaire personally elected Bill Clinton, by allowing the Democrat to seize an electoral landslide with just 43 percent of the popular vote. Political data scolds have debunked that history since it began, to little avail.
That didn't necessarily mean that Trump had done in his campaign. If pundits had been putting money on the last month's predictions of the imminent Trump collapse, they'd be lining up to declare bankruptcy. Multiple RedState Gathering attendees said they were cooler on the idea of voting for Trump, but wanted him to stick around and make life hell for his rivals. Some wondered if he even had that in him.
"I thought he was trying to pull a fast one when he said he wasn't preparing for the debate," said Anthony Giuliani, 60, who moved to the Atlanta area from New Jersey. "You know? Then I watched the debate and I thought: Man, he was serious."