ANDERSON, S.C. — Paulette Del Casale and a friend drove nearly three hours last week from the Atlanta suburbs to this rural, northwest corner of South Carolina to experience a Donald Trump rally — again.
“I feel, for the first time in my life, that I am not invisible,” said Del Casale, who decorated her campaign T-shirt with 14 large pro-Trump buttons. “For the first time, I feel like there’s actually somebody running for president who is speaking on behalf of myself and others like me.”
Del Casale is a prime example of the superfans who flock to Trump. They drive hours to campaign events and wait in Black Friday-like lines to get a spot close to the front. Many have never attended a political rally or regularly voted. Yet they devote hours each week to pro-Trump Facebook clubs and Twitter accounts and try to convince their relatives, friends and neighbors that the bombastic billionaire should be the leader of the free world.
“He hits the sore points that everybody kind of wants to steer around,” said Brett Hevner, a newly married 25-year-old who lives in Anderson and works for Pepsi. “That’s what I like about him — he’s not afraid to get in there and take the bullet. He’s not scared of anything, and that’s what we need.”
Trump’s campaign is not like most — and neither are Trump crowds. A recent speech in North Charleston attracted a group of middle-aged moms wearing homemade pro-Trump T-shirts and carrying elaborate signs. There was also a 71-year-old woman who said she watches cable television 15 hours a day to keep up with all of Trump’s comments. An appearance in rural Massachusetts attracted a man who has wanted Trump to run since 2012, as documented in a faded T-shirt featuring a cartoon Trump telling President Obama he is fired.
At a rally in Las Vegas, Trump invited onto the stage a star-struck fan clutching a copy of People magazine featuring his face. “I love Mr. Trump!” yelled Myriam Witcher, an immigrant from Colombia who bounced with the excitement of a teenaged girl meeting a boy-band heartthrob. “I am Hispanic, and I vote for Mr. Trump!”
At the rally in Anderson, cars in the parking lot were more likely to have a bumper sticker plugging a university, sports team or honors student than a political campaign. Inside were military veterans who were given seats of honor, high school students who won’t be old enough to vote next year and a 68-year-old retiree who attends as many Trump rallies as he can wearing a black and gold sombrero.
"I wear this in support because I feel like some Mexican people do support him and everything," said Jim Yates of Laurens, S.C., a veteran of the Vietnam War and retired toolmaker whose favorite politicians are the ones who challenge longtime incumbents. "What I like about Trump is he tells it like it is. . . . We gonna hopefully build that wall, 25 or 30 feet. I'm gonna go down there and help him."
Trump’s operation has been trying to identify his most passionate fans and funnel their energy into traditional campaign activities. Del Casale connected with one of Trump’s organizers on Facebook and agreed to help at last week’s rally. Wearing a laminated volunteer pass, she handed out yard signs, greeted the more than 5,500 people who arrived and cheered until she was hoarse.
When Trump said Republicans haven’t done enough to confront illegal immigration, Del Casale shouted, “We’re going to build a wall!” As he promised to get rid of the Common Core education standards, she agreed: “It’s child abuse!” And as Trump acknowledged that sometimes his tone can be a bit rough, she shouted, “We don’t need nice!” As Trump left the stage and rock music blared, she began to dance.
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Until this year, Del Casale had never really cared about politics. She grew up in a blue-collar family in Brooklyn and was the first in her family to attend college. Early on, she voted for Democrats, including Bill Clinton. But about a decade ago, she became disenchanted with both parties. It felt like the Democrats were no longer “the people’s party,” she said, so last year, she voted for Republicans for the first time — only to be disappointed that not much changed in Washington.
“We’re stagnant,” Del Casale said in describing her family’s finances over the past few years. “We’re fortunate. It’s sad — we are fortunate to be stagnant, as opposed to jobless. But that’s when Mr. Trump says the dream is dead. I would rather have a dream of prospering and continuing to improve.”
Del Casale works in sales, and her husband manages renovations of stores. She said she has a 14-year-old son in a public high school and a 7-year-old daughter she recently enrolled in a private school to escape the newly imposed Common Core standards. She’s worried about the data the government collects from schoolchildren.
Del Casale remembers watching a replay of Trump’s campaign announcement speech in June and thinking, “I’m listening to the message I want to hear.”
For years, she says, she has grown more and more frustrated. She’s angry that so much of her paycheck goes to taxes, yet the public schools in her area aren’t up to her standards. She’s angry about jobs being sent overseas and foreign workers being imported, and about chief executives making huge salaries while paying their employees low wages. She’s angry that going back to school has yet to pay off for her. She’s angry that the government doesn’t do enough to help people find jobs and decrease their dependence on food stamps and other entitlements. And she’s angry that the border is not secure and fears that Muslim refugees are being allowed into the country without enough vetting.
“If you don’t keep our country safe, then any other issue that people care about — what does it matter?” Del Casale said. “Say what you will about Muslims, but they’re congregating all over Europe, and it’s scary. The streets are a mess. The terrorism that’s going on. It’s going to get worse and worse.”
These are the sorts of issues that Del Casale is confident Trump will address. She didn’t know much about him before this summer, having never regularly watched his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” But she likes that he owns so many companies and has become so wealthy, which she says are signs of his intelligence, courage and leadership. Del Casale admires that he has vowed to spend millions of his own on the campaign — along with giving up time with his family and businesses.
“I’m stretched so thin, but if he needed the money, I would shell it out,” she said. “I would sacrifice.”
Although Trump has bragged about self-funding his campaign, a chunk of the money he has spent has come from supporters who made unsolicited donations. Of the more than $3.8 million Trump reports having raised from July to September, 72 percent came from donations of $200 or less. His campaign has said the average donation amount was $50.46.
Del Casale is instead donating her time — and lots of it. As soon as she wakes up, she checks to see what Trump has said on Twitter. The messages provide a personal connection, she says. Before and after work, she spends time reading news and chatting with fellow fans on Facebook. She has traveled to four Trump rallies: two in South Carolina, one in Georgia and one in Tennessee.
That sometimes means less time with her kids, but Del Casale said this mission is important.
“I’m doing this because I’m worried about my children” and their futures, she said. “I want them to have opportunities.”
Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.