Most of the time, reporters are kept quarantined from Donald Trump’s crowds. His anti-debate, pro-veteran rally at Drake University in Des Moines on Thursday night was no exception. The press was placed in a large ballroom behind the auditorium with the image of the rally piped in on a massive television. For all intents and purposes, we could have been covering the rally from home.
But just as the program began, I wandered out of the room and found stairs to the balcony. There were empty seats, so I sat down amidst the crowd, and decided to watch the event with them. I interviewed the six people closest to me.
Here’s what I learned: not one of them was likely to caucus for Trump on Monday.
Jason Benell, 31, is an insurance agent and an officer in the group Iowa Atheists Are Free Thinkers. He proudly wore a button, but rushed to explain the group wasn’t endorsing Trump. In fact, Benell is an avid Bernie Sanders supporter. But he’s an Army vet who served in Iraq and was asked to attend the Trump rally because of his service.
He and four buddies in the crowd had a bet: no one thought they could spot more than five minorities present. He'd found three and he’d been there over an hour. “I came because I’m curious,” Benell said. “Iowa Republicans are crazy. He might win Iowa but he won’t be the nominee.”
Trump came into the room 20 minutes late, but flush, he said, with the victory of putting together such a “phenomenal event in less than 24 hours.” He bragged that Fox News has been tripping over themselves to apologize to him and noted that he has more cameras here than they do at the debate. A protester yelled, prompting the crowd to chant "U.S.A." until the disturbance could be removed.
Gary Wozniak, 53, and his business partner Brent Angelo, 29, were in Iowa on a sales trip from Philadelphia. Angelo, sporting a black Trump beanie, was an avid plan who eagerly looked forward to voting for Trump in Pennsylvania on April 26. Angelo likes that Trump isn’t politically correct. "He says what a lot of people are thinking and he’s not afraid," Angelo explained. Wozniak, wearing a Trump pin he'd bought that night, said he liked Trump, but he proudly showed me a photo of himself with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “I’m torn,” he said.
“Me, too!” said Danielle Day, 21, a marketing senior at Drake sitting next to Wozniak. She and Wozniak struck up a conversation about Rubio’s tax plan. “I like that it’s so simple, 10 percent flat,” she said. Day is wavering between Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. She had come tonight because “it’s interesting that he didn’t go to the debate,” she said, nodding towards the stage. But after the event ended, she remained undecided between Rubio and Cruz, she said.
Trump, meanwhile, brought to the stage a series of “friends.” A multi-millionaire land developer who pledged to give Trump’s veterans fund $1 million. Trump wanted to make him ambassador to China, he said. Fellow Republican candidates, the former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, took the stage. Santorum tried to awkwardly not stand behind the podium with "Trump" emblazoned on it because, "I'm actually supporting someone else running for president," he said. The crowd laughed. Huckabee unabashedly grabbed the podium. "No use trying to hide," he said. The crowd cheered "U.S.A.," again. "In my head, you're saying 'Go, Mike, go," Huckabee said, a little forlornly. Then some veterans took the stage and talked about how hard it is returning from war.
Day’s friend Christy Bono, also 21, shifted restlessly in her seat. She had come to hear Trump, not his “friends.” She was also torn but for her the decision was even more daunting. “I like all of the Republicans,” she said. Did going to the Trump rally convince her? “No, I still like all of them,” she shrugged. “I didn’t learn anything tonight I didn’t already know.”
Trump started to brag that just today he’s raised $6 million for veterans. “They’re going to get so much money. Everyone’s going to get so much money,” he said.
Logan Reisinger, 18, who will be a finance major when it’s time to declare next year, came to the rally because he’s a huge Trump fan and left equally enamored. “I’d love to caucus for him, but I screwed up my paper work,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m registered. Also, I have a Monday night class that I really don’t want to miss.”
Trump wrapped up his speech. “We are a country that doesn’t win any more. We don’t win on trade. We don’t win on the military. We don’t win against ISIS. I mean, when was the last time you remember winning? Well, under me we are going to win so much. We’re going to win the border. We’re going to win trade. We’re going to win Obamacare,” Trump said. “We’re going to win again. We’re going to win at every single level.”
He seemed to think he had made his point. “Wasn’t that so much better than some debate?” Trump asked, as the crowd applauded. “This was such a special night.”
Trump, being the non-politician, never told the audience where to caucus or how to vote. That will cost him votes.
He bowed, and left with his family.
The others filed out, but Reisinger remained, his face aglow. He really wanted to caucus for Trump but he didn't quite know how and feared the process would prove too time-consuming. "I like him because he's cool," he said, almost to himself.