The Donald Trump experience: a photojournalist's perspective
The Donald Trump show is working in South Carolina.
Fueled by his feisty personality and stoked by voter anger over politics as usual, the New York billionaire has led S.C. presidential polls for six months.
Most political experts in the early-primary state did not think Trump’s lead would last six weeks.
Trump started his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, and saying U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former Republican presidential nominee, was not a hero for being a Vietnam War prisoner of war.
“I could not get my jaw off the floor,” former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson said. “You cannot do that in modern-day politics. I said, ‘He’s committing political suicide.’ ”
Instead, Trump’s poll numbers shot up in South Carolina, which holds the South’s first GOP primary on Feb. 20.
Trump’s numbers have stayed at the top despite calling a cable news anchor a bimbo, suggesting a ban on Muslims entering the country and claiming falsely that he is self-financing his campaign, when he has received $5.8 million in contributions through October.
“He’s broken all the rules and paid none of the costs,” said Barry Wynn, another former S.C. Republican chairman.
The voters who come by the thousands to Trump’s rallies across South Carolina don’t care.
As they listen to rock anthems and show tunes blared ahead of Trump’s appearances, those supporters are angry enough at government, and tired enough about what they see as political correctness, to proclaim Trump as the candidate who can fix the country, citing the smarts that made him a household name as a real estate developer and reality-television star.
“Everyone stretches the truth,” said Teri Watts, a 52-year-old Lexington restaurant manager at a Trump rally on Harmon’s Tree Farm near Gilbert last week. “There’s not one person who does not do that.”
‘Confidence is attractive’
Trump’s anti-politician rhetoric has worked across the country as voting in the 2016 election gets underway Monday in Iowa.
Trump leads polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the second state to vote.
In South Carolina – the third state in the GOP primary lineup, a state where Tea Party-backed politicians have found success – the thrice-married, onetime abortion-rights-supporting Trump is tops among voters of all age groups and political preferences, including evangelicals.
Trump supporters say they don’t want the Republican Party pushing another establishment candidate, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who failed to beat Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
“If (Romney) had Trump’s attitude, he would have wiped them all over the place,” Ed Bakay, a retired small business owner from McCormick, said while waiting to hear Trump for a third time last week.
Trump’s S.C. supporters say they like how Trump talks to them.
During hour-long monologues that can veer from how well he is polling to how he is the best hope of military veterans for help to how much he thinks of his family, Trump speaks like he is holding court at a Thanksgiving table or around a backyard grill.
“He comes across with confidence, and confidence is attractive,” said Richard Quinn, a longtime S.C. political consultant.
Trump’s blunt, straight talk – and fame – excite the crowds, who wait hours to get into his rallies, more like concerts than the polite lectures at other candidates’ events.
“It’s down to a level to where I say, ‘I get it,’ ” said Carolyn Caughman, a 65-year-old government retiree from Elgin, who attended her sixth Trump rally last week. “People here are saying, ‘This man is strong, says we’re going to fix this. We believe him, and he’s our last hope.’ ”
Trump supporters find comfort in his lack of political correctness, which shocked state political watchers until his lead continued into 2016.
Trump’s combative campaigning has turned off the state’s top Republican, Gov. Nikki Haley. But his caustic comments did not prevent Trump from winning the endorsement last week from a long-time member of the state’s GOP establishment, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a former state party chair who said he appreciated the front-runner’s honesty.
Former S.C. party chairman Dawson puts Trump’s chances of winning the S.C. primary and the GOP’s nomination at better than 50 percent.
“We thought there was no way he could offend that many people and win the nomination,” he said. “And we were wrong.”
Political P.T. Barnum?
Trump’s populist appeal has led to comparisons with Ronald Reagan, a former actor whose communication skills and connection with voters revolutionized the GOP after his White House win in 1980. That was the same year South Carolina cemented its status as an important early-primary state by giving Reagan his first large-margin win.
“The way I hear people talk about (Trump is), ‘I’m connected to him because I think he’s real, genuine,’ ” former S.C. GOP chairwoman Karen Floyd said. The candidate more people identify with has “more of a chance, than not, (to be) elected president.”
Shannon Bowen, a public relations expert who teaches at the University of South Carolina, said Trump has something in common with famed circus owner P.T. Barnum.
Barnum would do and say anything to get people to come to his shows – from claiming falsely to have the biggest man in the world at his circus to writing letters to newspapers under assumed names complaining about his own events, she said.
“There was no such thing as bad publicity,” Bowen said.
Trump’s controversial statements have the same effect.
They draw huge crowds, including protesters who disrupt his rallies. And the media space spent covering Trump’s controversial comments – such as saying his supporters would not abandon him even if he shot people on Fifth Avenue – is space that’s not going to his competitors, Bowen said.
“People say they can’t agree with him – and they can’t look away,” she said.
Bowen expects Trump will temper his comments if he wins the GOP nomination. But, for now, she thinks most voters understand Trump needs to deliver a bravado-laced, rough-edged message to reach his goal.
“Most people who listen don’t take everything he is saying as fact,” she said. “It’s all part of the show.”
S.C. GOP consultant Quinn said Trump deserves credit for correctly reading the anger of Republican electorate, including many Palmetto State voters.
Quinn recalled how famed S.C. political consultant Lee Atwater said the secret in politics was “to know what was obvious just a little before everyone knew it was obvious.”
“It’s hard not to be in awe. Trump seems to strive to be politically incorrect, and the GOP base laps it up,” said Quinn, who is working for a pro-Jeb Bush presidential political-action committee. “He has a gut understanding of the culture of 2015-16 more than anyone in the race.”
But reality will hit soon for Trump, some political watchers predict.
Once the now-12-candidate GOP field narrows, an anti-Trump candidate who is gathering convention delegates could attract $100 million in contributions for a supportive political-action committee, said Wynn, an S.C. co-chair of Bush’s campaign.
And with only two or three candidates remaining, Trump will have to become more serious on issues, providing the details that pundits have said he thus far has lacked.
“You can’t run it all on showbiz star appeal all of the time,” Wynn said.
Unique voice in 2016
For now, however, showbiz is working for Trump.
“He’s resonating because he doesn’t sound like consultants, strategists and pollsters are behind him writing his comments or whispering in his ear,” USC’s Bowen said. “He doesn’t sounds like everybody else.”
Trump’s unscripted moments come across as authentic, former S.C. GOP chair Floyd said.
“I think he’s more scripted than people give him the benefit for,” she said. “He knows the art of entertainment. From the second you go to one of his events and hear (the song), ‘We’re not going to take it’ – that’s so well-scripted and powerful.”
When the presidential race began formally last year, Dawson thought candidates – including the one he supported, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry – could start thoughtful conversations about ways to fix Washington.
Perry dropped out and the remaining hopefuls, insisting on talking traditional policy issues, are fumbling as they try to determine how to handle Trump’s popularity.
“We’re having emotional conversations instead,” Dawson said. “This hit a vein. Sausage making is not interesting to voters. We’ll see if Trump is a movement or a moment.”
Whether it’s part of his act or not, Trump backers often say they like that the candidate speaks out on unpopular subjects, such as deporting undocumented immigrants. His willingness to speak directly is what brings out the crowds.
“I talk like that, too. He says what’s on his mind, how he feels, direct to the point,” said Watts, the restaurant manager. “When he opens his mouth, everybody stops to listen to what he has to say.”
They listen because Trump has tapped into the frustrations of white Christian voters, who feel like their voices are no longer heard.
“It’s like he really says what we really feel – angry at how bad the economy and everything has transpired in the United States, border security,” said Caughman, the government retiree. “I just feel like everything is going down the drain.”
Trump’s supporters say the country’s problems stem from Obama – from his health-care insurance overhaul to his failure to contain ISIS and terrorist threats.
Other GOP White House hopefuls also complain about the president’s record, but they have been drowned out by voters who prefer candidates, like Trump, who have never held elected office.
“Maybe the legacy of Barack Obama is that he drove the Republican Party crazy,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Seneca Republican who is backing Bush after dropping out of the GOP race for president last month.
Trump’s legacy in South Carolina might be creating a new broad coalition of Republican voters, who once were counted on to elect governors like Carroll Campbell and senators like Jim DeMint, Wynn said.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “It creates a new energy and new excitement.”
Trump is winning across the spectrum of S.C. Republican voters, polls show.
He is tops with conservatives, moderates and independents. He is winning among men and women and all age groups. He is the favorite of Tea Party supporters and foes.
In South Carolina, evangelicals account for roughly six-in-10 GOP voters – a voting bloc wooed each presidential election cycle.
Newt Gingrich, who won the 2012 S.C. Republican primary over Romney, led with evangelicals as did Mike Huckabee, who nearly beat McCain in the Palmetto State in 2008.
This year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative Texas Republican running second to Trump in the polls, is counting on those religious voters.
But it is Trump, who has been married three times and said he has not asked God for forgiveness, who is winning among S.C. evangelicals – much to the surprise of state religious leaders.
Kevin Baird, a Charleston pastor and former director of the S.C. Pastors Alliance, said Trump has caused a fracture among evangelicals.
Baird said, in his opinion, Trump has not done enough to prove his religious credentials despite talking about the Bible and his faith at rallies.
“I think it’s a tactical and strategic move,” said Baird, who is leaning toward Cruz, but has not endorsed a candidate. “No one is expecting perfection. But I’m not sure a man who drops profanity easily and touts his sexual promiscuity, which popular culture may venerate, can say he is a Christian leader.”
Trump also is leading in another state with a large bloc of evangelicals – Iowa.
Graham predicts that if Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, he will take South Carolina. But the senator also thinks S.C. voters will deliver a clear anti-Trump candidate who can win GOP support moving forward in the primaries.
“We could create an alternative,” Graham said.
South Carolina has a history of picking the GOP’s presidential nominee, failing to do so just once over the past three decades – in 2012, when Gingrich won.
Floyd expects South Carolina again to pick the party’s nominee, even if it’s Trump.
“I think there’s a reason for everything,” she said.
Iowa vs. SC
How likely Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa, who vote Monday, and South Carolina, who vote Feb. 20, compare in some key areas, according to recent polls:
Similar concerns on issues: S.C. and Iowa voters share worries about national security and terrorism. But the economy, churning with a rough start of the year in the stock market, and the electability of a GOP in November have crept to the top of recent polls in importance.
Differing evangelical favorites: Very religious voters account for about 60 percent of GOP voters in both states, though they make up a smaller portion of the U.S. population. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, considered the conventional choice for religious voters among the two frontrunners, has led most recent polls of Iowa evangelicals. But billionaire Donald Trump is the top choice of S.C. evangelicals.
Differing excitement among first timers: Iowa is expecting record turnout in its caucus Monday due to excitement about Trump and Cruz. A recent NBC/WSJ/Marist poll backs up that chatter. Four-in-10 likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers said they will participate for the first time. South Carolina is not expected to draw as many new voters on Feb. 20. A little more than 1-in-10 likely S.C. voters said they will cast their first GOP presidential primary ballot.