He calls it a phenomenon, a movement — an awakening.
For months, Donald Trump has claimed that his support is much deeper than it appears, deep enough to win the Republican nomination and perhaps also the presidency. So far, he has been proven right.
Exit polls from primaries over the past month show his supporters as a mix of men and women who are mostly white but not exclusively. Their salaries, education levels, religious beliefs and degree of conservatism run the gamut. Their top worries are terrorism, national security, the economy and the ballooning national debt. And Trump has won five Southern states, three states in the Northeast and one in the West, Nevada.
In other words: These aren’t just Trump voters, these are today’s Republicans.
“The first few months he was entertaining to me,” said Carol Williams, 61, a small-business owner who lives in Fayetteville, Tenn. “I didn’t really think he was going to go anywhere — I really didn’t in the very beginning — and then I said: ‘You know, I really like everything he’s saying. Everything he’s saying sounds like me talking.’ ”
Trump’s following includes an Austin realtor who long supported the Bush family but has become tired of career politicians, even though she’s afraid to share her support of Trump too loudly. An immigrant from the Philippines, now living in southern Georgia, who thinks Trump is best poised to shrink the national debt and crack down on illegal immigration. An Oklahoma veteran who has a long list of visible and hidden injuries from his 23 years in the Navy and who lost his job in November, forcing him to drop health insurance for his wife and daughter.
And in Saturday’s primary in Louisiana, it will include a 40-year-old father who installs security gates and considers Trump the sort of guy who would come to a backyard crawfish boil with him and his “gun-totin’ redneck” buddies.
Somehow, Trump manages to be many different things to his followers, often in ways that are contradictory: He’s a regular guy but also a flamboyant billionaire; a uniter and a fighter; a politician who won’t touch social issues and who will appoint Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion.
But in scores of interviews across the country in recent months, supporters often echoed one another in describing what they like about Trump: He isn’t afraid to say the things they also say, even if those things are deemed racist, sexist, xenophobic or politically incorrect. He’s a businessman who will aggressively negotiate for people like them, not big donors. A family man, a truth-teller, an entertainer and a fearless outsider who is not afraid to attack the media, the establishment and even the pope.
“I’m not down with any more politicians — we need some common sense in this,” said Darrin Hahn, 45, who is a rough-talking father of a teenage son and who lives east of Baton Rouge. “We bring them into office to do certain things, and they’re not doing it — so why the hell am I going to make ’em president?”
Hahn and his brother-in-law, Matthew Stirling, traveled to Louisiana’s capital last month for a Trump rally, and both plan to vote for him in the Saturday primary. They describe Trump as a guy who knows how to hustle, just like them. Both men wore T-shirts promoting their businesses: Stirling installs security gates and has seen business increase 15 to 20 percent each year (“People feel pretty damn unsafe,” Hahn explains), yet he thinks too much of that money goes to taxes and health-insurance costs. Hahn is a commercial electrician and service manager who is constantly looking for jobs.
“If I don’t go drum up work, then I’ve got 11 guys who don’t work the next day, so I constantly have to go, literally, business to business,” Hahn said, describing how he saw a parking lot with defective lights and tracked down the owner. “I don’t have no bones about talking to the owner. I will talk to the president of the United States, I don’t even care. I will do whatever I have to do.”
Trump is the same way, he said.
“He’s actually out there and hustled it and built it,” Hahn said. “He’s a regular guy. He eats Wendy’s on his plane.”
But Trump owns the jet, a modified Boeing 757. How can they possibly call him a regular guy?
“He can come over to my house, and I will boil him crawfish. He can land his plane in the cul-de-sac,” said Stirling, who has two young children and lives in the countryside, where he can freely shoot his guns. “He’s invited to come over to my house whenever he wants.”
Flying to a rally in Georgia this week was Debbie Crowe of Austin, a 55-year-old realtor who considers Trump the kind of guy she would run into on the golf course, a place where she often does business.
“He’s the only one who can make a change inside the Beltway,” said Crowe, who supported George H.W. Bush as president and his son, George W. Bush, as governor of Texas.
At first, Crowe thought Trump was just a showman. But then she started listening to his answers in debates and was struck by his quick-thinking and raw honesty. She liked his explanation of his evolution from being a Democrat to becoming a Republican, from supporting abortion rights to opposing them.
“I’m a believer now,” she said.
Crowe voted for Trump on Friday, the last day of early voting in Texas. On Monday, she boarded a plane to southern Georgia to attend a Trump rally with a group of former teachers who are in a bridge club together and wore matching black T-shirts decorated with their monograms in silver sparkles.
Admitting that you are a Trump supporter, however, is not always easy. As she waited for her connecting flight in Atlanta, Crowe started to post an update on Facebook, letting her friends and acquaintances know she was in the Delta Sky Club, en route to the Trump rally.
“And I didn’t do it,” she said. “I paused. I took a breath and then I thought: I should be brave enough to do this, but on the second hand, man, would I get creamed.”
That night, sitting on the other side of the Valdosta, Ga., arena was Eden Dempsey, 66, who carries a piece of green paper with a question she wants to slip to the candidate: “Mr. Trump, during your first term as president, how much will you reduce our national debt?”
Dempsey moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1975, when she was in her 20s and had just married her American husband. She quickly learned the language, opened a small restaurant and learned American culture, which included hearing about Trump. She immediately liked him, and over the years, she noticed they had the same parenting style — pushing their children to work hard and stay out of trouble.
Dempsey, now retired, said she’s dismayed to see the national debt ballooning as the United States continues to spend money on social programs, including some that could be benefiting immigrants who came here illegally instead of legally, as she did. The country should not buy things it cannot afford, she said.
“I want somebody to do something about it,” Dempsey said of national spending. “Everybody talks about it, and nobody — nobody — does anything about it. And I think he will. It’s getting bigger and bigger. I mean, let’s have some responsibility.”
Some Trump fans say they have supported him since he announced his candidacy in June — if not years earlier — but many voters were not converted until the fall, when the Republican debates picked up and Trump’s standing in most polls solidified. His rallies have been increasingly targeted by protesters, who, if anything, only further endear Trump to his supporters.
Trump likes to joke that his fans are so devoted that he could do anything — perhaps even be tied to a murder, he has said more than once — and he would not lose any votes. Fact checks and attack ads seem to fall on deaf ears, and the media is even more distrusted than politicians. Some supporters trust only him, following his Twitter feed and rally speeches for news.
“I mean even Fox News — what they’ve tried to do to Donald Trump is absurd. . . . They have an agenda. They have an agenda. They have an agenda,” said Trump supporter David Graham, 61, of Madison, Tenn. “The mainstream media, you take MSNBC, you take CBS, you take CNN, you take all the big, you know, popular news media and they’re all out to get him. Why? They don’t want to see him as the president.”
Trump has long bragged about his poll numbers at rallies, listing off any that show him winning. In the past month, he has actual voting results to brag about, although he often adds some characteristics not found in most exit polls.
After winning New Hampshire, he said, “We won rich, poor, fat, thin, tall, short. We won women. We won men. We won highly educated, we won smart, smart, smart people that don’t have the big education.”
After his South Carolina and Nevada wins, plus a few major endorsements, Trump marveled: “I’m becoming mainstream.”
And after winning seven of 11 states on Super Tuesday this week, Trump pledged to grow and unify the Republican Party.
“I am a unifier. I would love to the see the Republican Party and everybody get together and unify,” Trump said. “And when we unify, there’s nobody, nobody that’s going to beat us.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.