Young Trump Voters Like These Are Key to a 2020 Victory

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Stormi Rodriguez says she'd never been called a racial epithet before. Growing up in Mission, Texas, just 70 miles from the Mexican border, the 21-year-old daughter of a single, Mexican-American mother, had what she calls a "normal, pretty uneventful life," in a heavily Hispanic part of the country. That changed one day in 2016, when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing a red Make America Great Again cap. The student at Texas State University said she was promptly bombarded with abuse from the Donald-Trump-hating Left and called a variety of epithets, including "wetback." "At college, some of my classmates called me a race traitor,'" she says.

Publicly supporting Donald Trump isn't easy for young voters, especially in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Pop culture derides Trump daily. So too does much of the mass media. Pro-Trump college students like Rodriguez say their teachers are almost uniformly hostile to Trump, and so are the majority of their fellow students. It takes a fair amount of backbone to be young and a Trump supporter, even in a GOP stronghold like Texas.

But the more than a dozen young Trump supporters who spoke to Newsweek were firm in their commitment to the president and clear about their reasons. They don't consider Trump racist and reject that label for themselves as well. They're sick of "cancel culture"—when critics on social media call for a boycott of someone who has said or done something deemed offensive—and political correctness. "We've had it shoved in our faces all day every day, in school and then from the pop culture," Isabel Brown, a graduate of Colorado State University, told Newsweek in July. They don't share the attraction to socialism that seems to be felt by many in their cohort. And Trump's unfiltered personality delights them.

They see themselves in the role traditionally played politically by the young: They are the rebels, the non-conformists, willing to stand up for what they believe in opposition to the establishment. Only this time, the establishment—on campus and in the broader society—is a culture that demands lockstep obedience to what Brown calls "far left ideas." For whatever reason, she says, most people her age "aren't rebellious, and aren't even particularly thoughtful. They feel the need to adhere to a politically correct 'progressive' agenda." In this environment, she argues, "true rebellion is simply to say, 'I disagree.' I think conservatives were expected to be quietly polite, and we expected people would be quietly polite in return. Now we've learned that unless you boldly fight for what you believe in, the culture and the country will look very different."

Michael Franke

Young Trumpers are not a mere political curiosity. Voters age 18 to 29 are one of two demographics nationwide that may hold the key to Trump's re-election, according to Brad Parscale, Trump's 2020 campaign manager. (Moderate independent and Republican women make up the other group.) The goal is not to win the young voter demographic outright—the campaign knows that won't happen—but rather to limit the margin with the Democratic nominee in key states, and in so doing perhaps tip the election to Trump.

That's close to what happened in 2016, though not because of any sophisticated effort by the Trump campaign. Hillary Clinton got only 55 per cent of the youth vote, down from the 60 percent Barack Obama won in 2012; many young people did not, to put it mildly, view Clinton as an inspiring candidate. (In 2008 Obama won an extraordinary 66 percent of the under-30 vote.)

Courtesy of TPUSA

"In what is likely to be another close election, if Trump can do better with young people than he did last time, that could be critical," says Mary Snow, polling analyst at the Quinnipiac University presidential polling organization. "There are plausible scenarios in which it could be decisive."

The Trump campaign won 37 percent of the youth vote in 2016 in a campaign that was shambolic and underfunded. It will not be this time. Trump 2020 has already raised more than $125 million and the campaign is making a concerted effort to target young voters in battleground states. Parscale, who headed Trump's digital media effort in 2016, says this will happen via social media, his forte, but also with "traditional boots-on-the-ground type organizing."

In both the virtual and real-world efforts, the campaign will have considerable help from outside groups--support it didn't have in 2016. One of them is Turning Point USA and its sister organization, Turning Point Action, which runs Students for Trump. Both are independent groups unaffiliated with the Trump campaign. The group organizes what Kirk calls "conservatives" on college campuses across the country, but "conservative" in this sense means Trump supporters. The group currently claims to have a "presence" on 1500 college campuses and a membership of 200,000. Kirk will lead them next year in an effort that he acknowledges is based on the 2012 "Obama for America" campaign targeting young voters. The Turning Point effort will be as much about "clip boards and tennis shoes" on campus as it is about social media, in what Kirk vows will be an "unprecedented'' effort to muster the pro-Trump vote on campuses across the country. "There's never been a pro-GOP effort at this scale before, targeting young voters," he says. "This can be done. We will make a difference."

Conservatives organizing on college campuses is not, of course, a novel concept. Young Americans for Freedom, a group founded by William F. Buckley in 1960, has had chapters on U.S. campuses for decades. The YAF was founded on and has continued to preach the standard conservative catechism: support for free markets and free trade, limited government and a robust American engagement abroad (originally rooted in staunch anti-communism). The YAF sees itself as the promoter of "true" conservatism" in the Buckley and Ronald Reagan mold, which is why some of its alumni had trouble swallowing the Trump campaign in 2016.

Courtesy of Isabel Brown

Donald Trump is not and will never be a true blue conservative—which is why there will always be a sliver of "never Trumpers" within the GOP—but a lot of young voters don't care about policy purity. The YAF's membership rolls have increased by five percent since 2016. As Kirk acknowledges, there aren't one or two defining issues among young Trump backers in the way that free market economics and staring down the Soviet Union motivated Reagan supporters more than a generation ago. The appeal of Trump is, as much as anything, attitudinal.

In an era of suffocating political correctness, on campuses in particular, the president's incorrectness is, for many, not just refreshing but liberating. "He's patriotic, he's pro-America, he wants to bring back the American spirit and he's not afraid to say it, and I'm all for that," says Brown, a Turning Point USA alum who worked for Prager University, an online education site started by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager. In September she started graduate school at Georgetown University in biomedical science policy and advocacy. The various ways that Trump has broken with convention don't repel these young supporters; it attracts them. Take his addiction to Twitter. Brown, 22, who grew up in a conservative Colorado household in which her parents stressed the "importance of forming one's own opinion at an early age," loves the fact that Trump tweets almost daily: "It's the way he communicates directly with his supporters," she says. "We love it."

Nearly all the young voters interviewed for this article praised Trump's outspoken patriotism. "Trump loves America," says Kearyn Bolin. "I love that about him." The biracial Texas State student was raised in Houston by a single mom. She wasn't always interested in politics (and was too young to vote in 2016), but her mother paid attention to Trump. "She always said America is a business and it would be good for a businessman to run it."

In 2017 Bolin, 20, attended a Turning Point USA meeting and liked what she heard—particularly in comparison to the anti-Trump rhetoric she encountered all the time on campus. "Trump delivers on his promises. He means what he says and says what he means. I think that's what a president should do."

Courtesy of TPUSA

Many Trump fans have tales of being bullied; an exchange of views doesn't seem to be possible, they say. When Stormi Rodriquez started a Turning Point USA chapter at Texas State, she says she was physically threatened. "There were some protesters outside the meeting, including one guy who came up to me and was pounding his chest like he wanted to fight. It was very, very scary. Believe me, whatever political ideology that guy associates with, I want no part of."

"What has happened to the left to make it so closed-minded," asks Brown, "where if you don't agree with every little bit of their policy agenda you're castigated as an evil, racist xenophobe and they just shut the discussion down?" She has lost relationships with friends and even relatives who can't abide her support of Trump. She handles this, she says, by moving on, concluding that anyone who will let politics get in the way of friendship or familial love and respect "is not someone I needed in my life to begin with."

Tales of friendships lost are common. Allison Ackles, 21, a senior at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, says she was very close to a group of about 10 friends at school when she went to a Turning Point USA event in Dallas two years ago. Her friends were all standard-issue college-age lefties, and when she returned from the conference—"a transforming event" she calls it—"I told my friends that I was thinking more conservatively now. All ten of them ultimately stopped speaking with me."

To many young Trump supporters, the left has simply "lost its mind," as Kirk puts it, on a whole range of issues. Take economics: At this summer's Turning Point USA convention in Washington, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul brought a packed ballroom to its feet when, echoing Trump, he proclaimed that "America will never be a socialist nation."

"It's really strange that so many Democrats seem to embrace socialism when the economy is so strong," Ackles says. Trump "is doing a great job...Unemployment is low for everyone—African Americans, Hispanic Americans, everyone. There are plenty of jobs. What's not to like?"

Spencer Ross, 23, a recent college graduate from Richmond, Virginia, agrees. He grew up in a rock solid Republican household, he says, and thinks the case for capitalism is self evident: "You had to either be asleep in economics class or just be ignorant" to support some of the policies the major Democratic presidential candidates favor, he says. "Free healthcare for illegal immigrants—really?" says Ross. "Did they actually all raise their hands in support of that?" (At the June 27 debate in Miami, all 10 candidates on stage did just that.) "They all apparently believe in the magic money tree that they can shake and get whatever they need to pay for everything. It's insane."

Courtesy of Ben Okereke

Still, Kirk acknowledges that the Democrats' "Santa Claus economics," as he calls it, poses a challenge for anyone trying to rally young people to Trump's cause. Free public college and college debt forgiveness head his list of dangerous lures. The latter in particular "is a big issue, and a tough one to run against. Our message is: Make better choices; there are a fair number of students who made choices not to take student debt. So you are going to tax them and their families to pay off someone else's debt?" How that message will play among recent graduates with a load of student debt is unclear. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed more than 70 percent of recent college graduates favor some sort of debt relief.

The toughest issue for Trump's youthful supporters is race and immigration. Trump's critics accuse him of using language that encourages white supremacists and anti-Latinos. Critics contend these "dog whistles" are at least partly responsible for the environment that produced the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas—carried out by a white supremacist who targeted Hispanics—and Dayton, Ohio. Some outlets in the mainstream press now routinely refer to some of Trump's tweets as "racist," as the Washington Post did in reporting on his July tweet, directed at four Democratic representatives of color, to go back to "the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

No young Trump supporter affiliated with any conservative organization interviewed for this article believes the president is a racist. But some express discomfort with his rhetoric and aspects of his policy. Jason Rivas, a 22-year-old junior at Saddleback College in Orange County, California, says his support for Trump on a scale of one to 10 is "about 6.5."

"I sometimes don't like his mouth— the way he tweets and the way he talks," he says. But Rivas, who voted for independent libertarian Gary Johnson in 2016, say Trump's positives far outweigh those negatives. "He's strong on the border, he's pro-life, and I definitely like that he is pro-capitalist and willing to go for tax cuts to help the economy move."

Courtesy of TPUSA

Others interviewed by Newsweek make the same calculation: Does the good outweigh the bad? Diego Morales, 20, a pre-law student at the University of Texas-El Paso, calls himself a "sometimes Trumper." He grew up in a solidly Democratic household and isn't wild about the president's approach to immigration, faulting Trump for not emphasizing his support for legal immigration. Trump "should significantly expand the number of immigrants accepted legally each year. He says he's pro-legal immigration, but he should do more to prove it."

But Morales lauds the president for "bringing back the American spirit, the American way of thinking. He's pro-America. People like that, and I do too." A pro-life, pre-law student, Morales also likes Trump's judicial appointments. "He's definitely done some good things. Which means, in 2020, I'm definitely leaning toward a Trump vote."

The conventional wisdom holds that Trump uses race-baiting and immigrant-bashing to energize his base, but some supporters believe, conversely, that it is Trump's critics who use those issues for their own ends. Ben Okereke, a 27-year-old African American who returned to college at Georgia State University after a four-year hitch in the Army, ridicules the idea that Trump is a racist. "People who say that don't have an argument; they can't defend their [political] ideas and positions," he says. "They're not making an argument—they are trying to get out of an argument."

Meadowlark Photography

Many young Trump supporters agree with that sentiment. But some try to have the conversation about Trump with his detractors anyway. Sergio Velasquez, 19, a sophomore at the University of California Los Angeles, is a "dreamer," brought by his mother to the United States from Guatemala when he was two years old. His status does not allow him to vote in next year's election, but he intends to be active in his support of Trump anyway, which he says is rooted in "Trump's honesty, his genuineness. He says what he believes and he doesn't back down, and that really resonates with me." So much so that he's already begun banging the drum for the President on campus. On September 11, he and a group of friends strung a banner across the middle of the campus that read, "Trump is not that bad. Change my mind." The goal, he says, was to "prompt honest conversation, honest debate."

Similarly, Stormi Rodriguez says her tack is to calmly "debunk" the most common arguments. For example, she points to the controversy about Trump's "very fine people" remark after the Charlottesville riot in 2017. The president was specifically not referring to the neo Nazi group that was protesting the tearing down of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, she says.

His supporters also reject the view that the increasing number of murders carried out by white supremacists has something to do with Trump. "That's guilt by association," says Brown. "It's a juvenile argument made by intellectually dishonest people." Rodriguez believes the shooters are the ones responsible for the killings, and that anyone saying otherwise is trying to "distract from that obvious fact and make a cheap political point."

One other thing that young Trumpers feel sure of is that their man will win in 2020. They're not worried about recent polls that say Joe Biden is ahead or show the president trailing Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. "I just go by the size of his rallies," says Rodriguez. "Who on the Democratic side draws anywhere near the number of people that he does?"

Updated 9/17; 5:00 p.m.: The description of TPUSA was amended to include its 501c4 sister organization, Turning Point Action.

Updated 9/18; 9:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information about the size of Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action and to clarify that the groups are unaffiliated with the Trump campaign.