JACKSON, Miss. — Donald Trump touched down in this ruby-red state Wednesday, returning to a region where he experienced an outburst of support that he has so far been unable to transfer to the battlegrounds up for grabs in November.
To many, his evening rally here was a head-scratching stop at a time when he is trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the key states that stand to decide the election in November. But Trump’s campaign sees a benefit to returning to the heart of the Deep South, where he started drawing massive crowds last year, showed early signs that he would shake up the race and went on to rack up big primary wins.
“He’s going after every voter and every vote,” said Trump senior adviser Karen Giorno. “I don’t think that the strategies that everyone has relied upon in past presidential elections apply here.”
Trump appeared in Jackson, a majority black city, at a moment when he has increasingly encouraged African Americans to vote for him by arguing that they have nothing to lose by doing so — a pitch Democrats say is insulting. Trump has been making his appeals in front of predominantly white crowds.
“We have given Mr. Trump an opportunity to be presidential. And thus far, with respect to diversity, with respect to tolerance, he has not demonstrated that he’s there yet,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a Clinton supporter who is African American. “So we believe that if people of good will don’t step forward, they might be bamboozled by the Trump campaign.”
Trump’s fiercely populist, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment rhetoric has resonated among white, blue-collar voters in the South, one of the country’s most conservative strongholds. But with fewer than 11 weeks to go until the election, he has failed to catch fire in battlegrounds where recent presidential elections have been decided.
In his remarks, Trump nodded to the support Mississippi showed him from the early days of his campaign, saying he would “not forget it.” He also argued that Democrats have “failed and betrayed” the African American community. He called Clinton a “bigot” who only sees minorities as votes.
Speaking off a teleprompter, Trump offered a broad and somewhat vague populist pitch, calling for a “new American future” and comparing his campaign to the effort to remove Britain from the European Union. He brought onstage former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a leading proponent of “Brexit.”
“No one will be left behind anymore,” Trump said.
The decision to campaign in Mississippi is in line with the Republican nominee’s habit of stumping in states that lean heavily conservative or liberal and that don’t appear to be in play. Earlier this summer, Trump made a lengthy swing through left-leaning California. A week and a half ago, he was in Connecticut, a largely Democratic state. He appeared in safely Republican Texas on Tuesday.
But Trump was also campaigning Wednesday afternoon in central Florida, a swing area in a battleground state. Giorno, who focuses primarily on Florida, said the campaign plans to launch three RV units to serve as mobile offices in the state, the first of which debuted at Trump’s afternoon rally in Tampa. She said the campaign plans to have more than two dozen offices across the state.
After Florida, Trump headed to Mississippi for a fundraiser and addressed an evening rally at an arena here in Jackson.
Some Republicans question the decision to spend extended time in Mississippi, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976 when it went for Jimmy Carter of Georgia. There are no signs of a Democratic upset here this year.
“Every day that you are not spending in a crucial battleground is potentially a wasted opportunity, because what you can do when you are in a battleground state is guarantee coverage in media markets that are going to be crucial to winning that state,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012 who is not supporting Trump.
The candidate has dug himself into a deep hole since the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer after he picked fights with party leaders and criticized the Muslim family of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq. The chance to project strength though big vibrant crowds in an area where he is popular is not a bad idea, some Republicans say.
“Holding a rally while fundraising is not going to hinder Trump and [running mate Mike] Pence from hitting the battleground states hard,” said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist who supports Trump.
Trump won Mississippi by a comfortable margin in the GOP primary race, and he swept the rest of the Deep South, despite intense efforts by his top rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Trump campaigned heavily on his hard-line opposition to illegal immigration and as a political outsider.
One key moment when Trump served notice to Republican leaders that his appeal in the party was not going to fade came about a year ago in Mobile, Ala., when a large and enthusiastic stadium crowd came to see him speak on a Friday night. Many establishment Republicans at the time were skeptical of his ability to compete for the GOP nomination, even though he was attracting much larger audiences than his rivals.
The frenzy of that period was captured by a viral photograph taken at the event of a woman with a massive smile on her face as Trump touched the cheek of her baby.
Even as Trump’s appeal in the most conservative pockets of the South remains strong, Florida — a diverse mix of deeply conservative areas, liberal turf and swing terrain — remains an uphill climb for him. Meanwhile, some recent polls have shown a competitive race in Georgia, a state Republicans have been able to count on at the presidential level in recent elections.
In battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, polls show Trump trailing Clinton — in some cases by double digits.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller issued a statement Tuesday saying that the candidate will visit key battlegrounds such as Iowa and Nevada in the coming days. The statement did not mention Mississippi.
Ahead of Trump’s visit, Thompson joined other African American leaders at a news conference in Jackson to highlight the problems they see with the GOP nominee’s rhetoric on minorities. The congressman cast Trump’s visit to Jackson as a unique chance for him to speak about African American issues in an urban area, as opposed to other places “not like” Jackson where Trump has been visiting.
“This is his first opportunity to change the rhetoric that he’s given in suburban communities about people of color,” Thompson said.