LOWELL, Mass. — This old mill town is best known for what it used to be, when textile factories on the Merrimack River provided employment for thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Russia and Greece.
That town is long gone, and a new one is fighting to emerge. Despite being home to a University of Massachusetts campus, only about 1 in 5 residents has a bachelor’s degree. The median household income is about $49,500, lagging national and state medians. Nineteen percent of the city’s 110,000 residents live in poverty.
“The strength of this community is the strength of our people,” said the city’s just-departed mayor, Rodney M. Elliott, a Democrat. “We’re not wealthy in terms of economic income, but we find strength in our people.”
This is the kind of city where billionaire Donald Trump likes to hold his presidential campaign rallies, and where his message seems to resonate most.
The rowdy, boisterous events that have come to define and propel Trump’s presidential campaign are usually not the ones he holds in early voting states such as Iowa or New Hampshire. Instead, he is increasingly defined by the rallies held in cities that rarely see presidential candidates this early in the process, if ever. They are also often places that are struggling: Mobile, Ala., where the unemployment rate is still higher than the national and state rates; Springfield, Ill., where the manufacturing industry has yet to recover from the recession; and Beaumont, Tex., which is worrying over the effects of low gas prices.
These rally towns — and many others Trump has visited during his campaign — lag behind the country and their home states on a number of measures. Their median household incomes are lower, and they often have lower rates of homeownership or residents with college degrees. Even though most of these cities have sizable minority populations, the crowds at Trump’s rallies are nearly entirely white.
And in each crowd, there’s an overwhelming feeling that the economy is still not doing well enough — and a resignation that it might never get better than this without some sort of dramatic change.
“I look at how difficult it is for people to really afford the basic necessities in life,” said Alexis Aronson, 36, a Lowell native who works for Comcast and plans to register to vote so she can vote for Trump, whose rally she attended on Monday night. “I think in the last few years, it’s just been the same. I think, if anything, people have just become so immune to how the economy is. I think people are just kind of living with it as it is.”
Her mother, Laurie Aronson, nodded: “We’re conditioned to just kind of go with it.”
In these out-of-the-way places, Trump attracts thousands and thousands of fans who wait for hours in the sweltering heat or freezing cold to hear him speak. He presents himself as an underdog of sorts who beat the system with some basic common sense, and his biggest cheers often come when he bashes Democrats, the Republican establishment, the media, money-grubbing corporations or any other institution that has let people down. He gets standing ovations for his promises to bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas and construct a wall along the southern border to keep out illegal immigrants, terrorists and drugs.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who grew up in Lowell, said the campaign has been “very, very judicious” in its selection of rally sites, looking for places where residents have missed opportunities and where Trump’s message could resonate. He pointed out that many of the places Trump visits are not conservative strongholds where Republican presidential candidates usually venture. Instead, Trump often picks cities filled with dissatisfied blue-collar Democrats and Republicans who feel as if they haven’t had a voice.
Trump brushed off the suggestion that he is targeting certain types of communities.
“No, I think we go all over,” Trump said in a brief interview on Tuesday evening, pointing to the Lowell rally as an example. “We had everybody, and we had very smart people. I mean, people that really get it.”
Trump will toss local references into his rally speeches — talking cars in Michigan, tractors in Illinois, oil in Texas and Tom Brady in Massachusetts — but he mostly gives the same sort of speech, no matter which state he is in. Although Trump has ping-ponged across the country for these rallies, the concerns of the audience members from one city to the next are nearly uniform.
There’s the 47-year-old guy in Springfield who manufactures Ferris wheels, which he says feels like the last thing that’s still made in America. There’s the 37-year-old railroad employee at a rally in Worcester, Mass., who accuses his union of pressuring him into voting for President Obama twice. The 55-year-old former restaurant manager from western Oklahoma who has been out of work for more than a year as fewer oil rigs run and towns dry up.
And there is Kevin Steinke of suburban Grand Rapids, Mich., who says he is trying to figure out how to pay health-insurance premiums each month on his unpredictable consulting salary.
“Some of his rhetoric is a little strong, but I think he’s hitting the nerve, and people are getting frustrated by the fact that we don’t seem like we’re getting anywhere as a nation. A lot of us feel like we’re going backwards,” said Steinke, 53, who brought his two teenage sons to a Trump rally in Grand Rapids. “He’s saying a lot of things people are thinking, and it’s resonating. . . . We need a CEO for this country. We don’t need a politician in chief.”
The crowd here in Lowell included a 56-year-old hairdresser who says that the economy has stalled for her and those who sit in her chair, many of whom are Democrats. There were two brothers from Lowell in their early 20s who like Trump’s business mentality, unlike their Democratic parents who worried about their sons’ safety at the rally, and a 20-year-old from New Hampshire whose Republican father taught him to buy only American-made products. An 11-year-old girl from the Boston suburbs wore a homemade T-shirt reading: “I’ve planned a future but without Trump there is no future.”
“I love Trump because he’s not a politician,” said Heather Laine, 31, a lifelong Lowell resident who teaches preschool and kindergarten and attended the rally. “Everybody always promises the same old thing, except for him. . . . I like the fact that he actually says things on the national platform that everybody is saying at home, at the dinner table every night.”
Laine says she loves the diversity of Lowell, where a quarter of the residents were born in a foreign country, including a large contingent of Cambodians. But she also says some immigrants don’t work hard enough and rely too heavily on the government.
“I’m all for people wanting to come into this country and work for what they want, but they don’t want that. They want to get handouts,” said Laine, who says she and her husband are living with relatives because they can’t afford their own place. “The American dream, to me, seems like it’s falling to the wayside.”
Laine is a registered Democrat, but she plans to change her party registration and vote for Trump.
Backstage, Trump met privately with supporters, local leaders and police officers, taking photos and chatting in the way that other presidential candidates would woo big donors. This is the sort of thing the candidate has time to do because he doesn’t have to woo major donors. It’s in these meet-and-greets, always closed to the media, that aides say Trump displays his retail-politics skills, personally connecting with voters across the country who can take his message to their friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors.
When asked in an interview to share an interaction or conversation in Lowell that stood out to him, Trump deferred to his campaign manager, who listed off attendees as Trump nodded and said things like: “Right, nice guy.”
When Trump announced that he would hold a rally at Lowell’s Tsongas Center — named for the late Democratic U.S. senator from Lowell and mostly used for hockey games — some locals thought it was a joke. Dozens of protesters attended the rally or stood outside in the snow, holding signs with messages like: “You, the KKK and Putin want Trump for president. How does it feel?”
“Lowell is like a salad bowl of immigrants, and what Donald Trump believes seems to be against immigrants,” said Tooch Van, 40, an immigrant from Cambodia who works as a counselor at the community college in Lowell and protested Trump’s rally. “I just don’t understand.”
Trump insists that his crowds aren’t just curiosity seekers and that his popularity is part of a movement that’s sweeping up all sorts of voters, not just the blue-collar ones.
“There is such love in these rooms — here, Dallas, no matter where I go,” Trump said in Lowell, where the arena was filled beyond its 7,800-person capacity. “We’re in Massachusetts, we go to New Hampshire, we go to Iowa, we go to South Carolina, we go to Nevada. . . . We go into Florida, where it’s been incredible. I go to Texas, it’s all the same. It’s love. It’s love.”