'Super Trump': President banks on first-time voters with blitz of rallies in final week of US election

Ben Riley-Smith
·7-min read
President Donald Trump arrives for one of his many campaign rallies with under one week until election day - Election 2020 The Day in Photos /AP
President Donald Trump arrives for one of his many campaign rallies with under one week until election day - Election 2020 The Day in Photos /AP

It is voters like Angel Fraijo that give Donald Trump hope.

The 36-year-old marketer did not back the US president at the last election. In fact, he has never backed any politician, staying away from the ballot box out of disillusionment.

Until now. 

“Trump has made promises, Trump has kept promises,” he said, explaining that the president’s record in office has turned his head.

Attending a presidential rally in Phoenix, Arizona – his fifth this year – Mr Fraijo has become a true believer, as the message on his T-shirt makes clear: “I’m voting for Trump. Try and stop me.”

Does he know others like him? “You have no idea”, he said. His mother, a lifelong Democrat, recently called to say she had voted Republican across the ticket.

First-time Trump voters. These are the people the president believes can deliver him a stunning comeback victory on Tuesday’s election. And he has a strategy to match.

All this week Mr Trump has been criss-crossing the country conducting a blitz of rallies. Sometimes three a day, often each an hour long. More than a dozen in total and counting.

The drive reflects the Trump campaign’s theory of the case: That if they excite their support base enough to drive up turnout they will defeat Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

So are the thousands of cheering supporters proof the president’s strategy is working? Or, by underscoring his coronavirus failings, are the rallies just nailing shut his political coffin?

One thing seems certain: The president is enjoying himself. From the moment Air Force One glistened into view in the scorching October sun in Phoenix it was trademark Trump political theatre.

President Donald Trump arrives on Air Force One for a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport  - Ross D. Franklin /AP
President Donald Trump arrives on Air Force One for a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport - Ross D. Franklin /AP

There was the procession from the plane, the president driven in a blacked-out car past a vast American flag as suited secret service officers walked alongside.

There was a stump speech which stitched together self-praise, gripes about the media, fierce and at times inaccurate attacks on his opponent and a good deal of humour.

“Don’t make me cry. They’ll say the president was crying,” Mr Trump joked after shouts of “we love you”.

When he said recovering from Covid-19 made him want to “rip my shirt off, just like Clark Kent”, the crowd chanted back: “Super Trump! Super Trump!”

There were also surrogates. Mr Trump, never shy about prompting others for superlatives, ushered up a string of politicians to eulogise him in mini-speeches.

Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was among them. “This is the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life,” he said. “Well, I think I’m glad I called him up,” the president retorted.

After the president's YMCA dad-dancing was over at the speech’s close and Air Force One had swept off into the distance, covering attendees in dust, some of those still standing appeared enamoured.

“Love this man,” said Sharon Holmes, who declined to give her age with an “I’m old enough to know better”. She and friends had driven five hours from southern California to join.

Ms Holmes had opposed Mr Trump when he first sought the Republican primary, preferring any of the other 16 candidates to win, but reluctantly voted for him to defeat Hillary Clinton.

This time, she could not be more excited. “I came on board a little begrudgingly,” she admitted. “But now I realise how wrong I was.”

Her story is one echoed in local Republican Party headquarters across the swing states. Officials insist that enthusiasm for Mr Trump in 2020 is off the charts compared to 2016.

Mr Farage, touring the battleground state of Arizona for two days, agreed. “He has the momentum”, he told The Telegraph after the speech.

The two men, who formed a friendship during the 2016 campaign, talked briefly at the rally. Mr Farage said his takeaway from the chat was the president really believes he will win.

The rally strategy has given Mr Trump one tangible: A backdrop that projects energy. All week cable news has shown a president at a podium and a sea of supporters going wild.

Mr Biden, by contrast, has held carefully controlled events with dozens of attendees on seats socially distanced and marked with circles on the ground, or in cars at ‘drive-in rallies’.

But, counters the Biden campaign, that is exactly the point. This is a campaign defined by who can best tackle the pandemic and the daily case count is hitting record highs.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in campaign rally at Broward College  - Drew Angerer /Getty
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in campaign rally at Broward College - Drew Angerer /Getty

The president, whose handling of the crisis is already disapproved of by most Americans according to polls, is speaking to people bunched close together with many – perhaps most – maskless.

“Covid, Covid, Covid” has become the refrain Mr Trump has deployed repeatedly in recent days, bemoaning media coverage of the pandemic and promising a return to “normal”.

Some see the rallies as not strategic but cathartic. “He craves it. He needs the affirmation,” said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s campaign guru, on the Hacks On Tap podcast this week.

Mike Murphy, the seasoned Republican consultant, agreed: “This is what a political death rattle looks like. It’s all him talking to him.”

The Trump campaign cites hard evidence to rebut the scoffing: Registered voters.

In Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina – three swing states that could decide a close election – Republicans have narrowed the Democratic lead on supporters registered to vote.

For years the president’s re-election campaign has sought out people likely to back their man, not least non-college educated white Americans in battleground states, and got them on the voting rolls.

The Trump campaign has always insisted rallies help them achieve the goal, drawing in many more undecideds than the media presumes. And in Fayetteville, North Carolina, there were signs of that.

President Donald Trump smiles at supporters at a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport - Ross D. Franklin /AP
President Donald Trump smiles at supporters at a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport - Ross D. Franklin /AP

Twenty-four hours after the Phoenix rally and 2,000 miles to the East, the gathering at the city’s small regional airport felt a world apart from Arizona.

For one, the skies were overcast and the wind was strong. For another, there was no president.

Just two hours before he was due to speak, Mr Trump cancelled the rally by tweet, saying he was “forced” to abandon due to bad weather and vowing to return on Monday.

Many Trump supporters had not received the message in time.

Some stood looking forlornly through the railings as staff stacked chairs and deconstructed the stage on the tarmac beyond. Many pulled up in their cars, dropped their jaws at the news and left.

Three friends from Tennessee who had flown in especially for the rally – their first ever – were left temporarily stranded as the air space remained closed despite the cancellation.

As they waited to return home, wearing checked shirts and matching Make America Great Again red hats, the men, who run construction businesses, shared their views of the race.

Did they know first-time Trump voters? “Absolutely”, two of them responded in unison.

US Election 2020 – when is the winner declared?
US Election 2020 – when is the winner declared?

Josh, 42, said his 83-year-old uncle opposed Mr Trump in 2016 but this time will tick his box because of the direction Mr Biden wants to take the country.

The fact that Trump rallies can pull in even the most unlikely of people was confirmed by the presence of Brendan, a 48-year-old tech worker who declined to give his surname.

He voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but had been drawn by the buzz of the rally. “I just figured I’d come to see what it was like, the amount of energy,” he said.

Brendan did not like the president’s rhetorical style – “like a bull in a China shop” – but is frustrated by what he sees as the silencing of free speech on social media, something Mr Trump has railed against.

So on Tuesday will he become those rarest of things, a Clinton-Trump voter? Brendan, an undecided in a critical swing state, said he is still torn. But he added: “I’m seriously, seriously considering it.”