Over the last few months, I have covered campaign rallies in the Carolinas for four of the surviving presidential candidates: Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
This is the seventh presidential election in which I’ve reported on candidates and their campaigns. Most years followed a similar script, with many of the same issues being raised at rallies that, whatever the party, were more alike than different in style and substance.
This year is different. Make that very different. I can’t recall any violence at rallies in 2012, for example. Or any presidential debates that turned into insult-fests. A Republican businessman with no political resume – pizza tycoon Herman Cain – did run that year. But eventually, the battle for the GOP nomination came down to seasoned politicians (a former governor, an ex-House speaker, a one-time senator). That’s what always happens. Except in 2016, when governors and senators kept dropping out and Donald Trump kept winning even after saying things that would have doomed any other candidate.
And when is the last time a self-described democratic socialist ran for the Democratic nomination and actually caught fire in the primaries? The answer: Never, until Bernie Sanders did it this year.
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Here, then, are 10 areas to explore if you want a better idea of what these four would-be presidents are about. (I didn’t get to cover Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who’s still in the GOP race after winning his home state last week.)
The best ones – see those for Trump and Sanders – go viral and capture voters’ emotional connection to a candidate or a movement.
Trump: “Make America Great Again.”
Clinton: “Fighting for Us.”
Cruz: “Courageous Conservative.”
Sanders: It’s officially “A Future to Believe In,” but the more popular slogan is “Feel the Bern.”
2. Greatest hits
Like concert-goers pining to hear their favorite songs performed live, campaign rally attendees roar with delight when their candidate speaks those signature lines.
Trump: “We’re going to build a big wall. And who’s going to pay for the wall?” Crowd answers on cue: “Mexico!”
Clinton: “We should be breaking down barriers, not building walls.”
Cruz: “If I am elected president, we will repeal every word of Obamacare.”
Sanders: “When Wall Street was in trouble, they got bailed out. Now it’s Wall Street’s time to help the middle class.”
Candidates often use their look to reinforce the image they want to convey, from “hugely successful business deal-maker” to “anti-fashion revolutionary.”
Trump: Expensive business suit, “Make America Great Again” cap.
Clinton: Tailored pantsuit, often accented by a bold necklace.
Cruz: Jeans, open-collar shirt, cowboy boots.
Sanders: From his unruly white hair to the suits that don’t seem to fit him, Sanders has trailblazed the disheveled look on the campaign trail. Paul Fahri, writing in the Washington Post, compared him to an aging college professor “too busy conjuring Big Ideas to care about such trivialities as clothes and hair.”
All campaign rallies have a certain feel, shaped by everything from the makeup of the crowd to the choice of venue to the tone of the candidate’s remarks.
Trump: Think big-time wrestling.
It’s all there: Trump’s tough talk and over-the-top boasts; shouting and shoving matches between supporters and protesters; a heavy police presence; and thousands of fans packed into a large arena – like Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum this month – soaking up the political entertainment and wondering, on the edge of their seats, just what will happen next. Or what Donald will say next.
Clinton: A modern take on the old-fashioned political rally.
Clinton gatherings combine traditional settings – high school and college auditoriums, African-American churches – with a parade of elected officials publicly touting her experience and her plan to help improve the lives of everyday people. At Charlotte’s Grady Cole Center last week, the lineup included Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C. When it’s Clinton’s turn at the microphone, she peppers her prepared speech with pledges to bulldoze barriers keeping women, minorities and other Democratic constituencies from reaching their potential.
Cruz: Like a Church revival.
On one day in North Carolina this month, Cruz held rallies inside two white evangelical churches. At Central Baptist in Kannapolis, he was introduced by a pastor, the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte. Supporters filed into the pews and watched a video on the sanctuary screens that featured leaders of national conservative groups bearing witness to Cruz’ deep Christian devotion and his commitment to the U.S. Constitution. The senator’s first words to his political flock: “God bless the great state of North Carolina.”
Sanders: Woodstock 2.0.
To the Millennials who are Sanders’ most passionate backers, the 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont is a rock star. So it seemed appropriate last week that his Charlotte rally was held at the PNC Music Pavilion – site of so many concerts. The event drew about 6,000 people, most of them young. As Sanders detailed his plans for revolution – taxes on Wall Street speculators, free tuition at public universities, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all – his idealistic acolytes responded by chanting his name. “Ber-nie! Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”
5. Fans speak
Trump: “I think he’s saying what everybody else is thinking and doesn’t have the guts to say.” – Yvonne Cooke of Hope Mills, a retired school system employee in her 60s.
Clinton: “She knows what the presidency looks like and she knows how to run the country.” – Churise Turner, 38, a social worker from Rock Hill.
Cruz: “I feel sure he’ll stand up and do what he says. And he’s a man grounded in the (Christian) faith.” – Martin Stancil, 76, a retired sales representative from Kannapolis.
Sanders: “He’s the only honest man I’ve seen in politics.” – Michael Couch, 25, of Charlotte, who plans to join the Army.
6. Echoes of ’68
You’d have to go back to 1968 to find another presidential election year as wild as the one still playing out in 2016. That year, too, there were people angry at Washington (mostly over the Vietnam War), protesters disrupting rallies (and even the Democratic convention in Chicago), white working class backlash against change, and outsider candidates taking on the establishment.
White House contenders this year have more than a few similarities with those who ran in ’68.
Like Richard Nixon, the Republican eventually elected president in 1968, Trump calls his supporters the “Silent Majority” and has backed police during these tense racial times in a way that recalls Nixon’s “Law and Order” mantra.
Like George Wallace, the one-time segregationist governor who ran as an independent in 1968, Trump has been defiant in the face of protesters who object to what they consider bigoted stands – in Trump’s case, against Muslims and undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
Though the most obvious comparison is to then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the party stalwart who eventually won the 1968 Democratic nomination, Clinton also has some interesting similarities with Robert Kennedy, whose campaign that year ended with his assassination. Like Kennedy, Clinton was a senator from New York, has a famous political name, has a former president in the family and has a strong following among African-Americans and Latinos.
And like Nixon – known to his critics as “Tricky Dick” – Clinton is a longtime politician dogged by charges of dishonesty.
Like then-GOP Gov. Ronald Reagan, who made his first run for president in 1968, Cruz is waging a campaign as the candidate who appeals to hard-line conservatives – especially those in the South.
Like then-Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a little-known anti-war senator who challenged his party’s establishment in 1968, Sanders launched an idealistic campaign that’s propelled by an army of college students. McCarthy first made waves in the 1968 New Hampshire primary by coming close to beating then-President Lyndon Johnson. This year, Sanders got his first win – beating Clinton in a landslide – in New Hampshire.
The music that candidates play at their rallies can further campaign themes – or just fire up the crowd.
Trump: Last year, his exit song was Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Clinton: Katy Perry’s “Roar” – a salute to girl power – revs up Clinton supporters.
Cruz: Country and contemporary Christian tunes rule at Cruz rallies. A favorite: Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly.”
Sanders: One of the most popular songs at Sanders’ Charlotte rally was “Disco Inferno” – especially the lyrics “Burn baby burn.”
Trump: Red or white “Make America Great Again” caps, like the ones Trump himself wears ($25). “Proudly made in the USA,” according to the campaign website.
Clinton: Black tote bag with “Hillary” signature ($35). “Union made in America ... and ready to go wherever the campaign trail takes you.”
Cruz: Camouflage hunters headgear ($35), with the word “Cruz” blended in.
Sanders: The “Bernie” hoodie ($55), made by union workers in the United States.
9. Don’t-hold-your-breath campaign promises
Some of the candidates’ most popular pledges on the stump are given little chance of happening if they’re elected. Either they cost too much, they can’t pass Congress, they’d violate international law or they’re just plain unworkable.
Trump: Immediately deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Clinton: Offer multiple tax credits and launch ambitious new programs without raising taxes on 97 percent of U.S. households.
Cruz: “Carpet bomb” ISIS, but do so without killing any civilians.
Sanders: Expand Medicare to cover everybody, like Europe does. Price tag: More than $1.3 trillion.
10. Celebrity endorsements
Trump: Kid Rock, Mike Tyson, Ted Nugent, Dennis Rodman, Wayne Newton, Gary Busey, Hulk Hogan, Sarah Palin, Mike Ditka.
Clinton: Katy Perry, Morgan Freeman, Lena Dunham, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Eva Longoria, Jamie Foxx, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Steven Spielberg, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, Kerry Washington, Magic Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney.
Cruz: Phil Robertson (“Duck Dynasty”) and Glenn Beck.
Sanders: Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee, Danny DeVito, Neil Young, Sarah Silverman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Seth McFarlane, Mark Ruffalo.