WILDWOOD, N.J. — The president asked for nothing less than everything they had.
“If you want your children to inherit the blessings that generations of Americans have fought and died for to secure,” President Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters in Wildwood at one of a string of campaign rallies he has held this winter, “we must devote everything that we have toward victory in 2020.”
Sitting a few yards to the president’s right, a 53-year-old retired police officer, Jacqueline D’Angelo, was taking Trump’s words to heart. Sitting with her 14-year-old son, Lorenzo, she pumped her fists as Trump’s voice rose and fell. She waved her made-for-TV sign — “Women for Trump” — and jeered along with the crowd when the president ran down the list of his villains: Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, the news media, Nancy Pelosi again. Mostly, she was having fun.
The rally last month was just like any of over 500 that Trump has hosted since announcing his candidacy in 2015, but this one was special to D’Angelo because it was her first. When she emerged from the rally, her cheeks were flushed.
“That,” she said, “was a release.”
For the campaign, it was a capture.
D’Angelo’s experience represents the ideal outcome for a campaign that leads the way in using digital platforms to bring followers into the flock and hoovering up crucial voter information once they get there. Rallies like this one — and an upcoming one Friday night in North Charleston, South Carolina — turn out to be the crown jewels of data collection for Trump’s campaign.
Step one: The data/ticket exchange
Campaign officials are open about viewing the rallies as data-mining expeditions that can help create a red-hatted army of volunteers.
D’Angelo and her son, according to the campaign, were two of nearly 100,000 people who registered to attend the New Jersey rally, Trump’s first in the state as president. To register for the rally, she visited the campaign site, clicked a button, then turned over her name, email address and phone number. She received two tickets in return.
D’Angelo heard about the president’s appearance through a friend who helps her operate a pro-Trump Facebook page she created before the 2018 midterm elections. Like most Facebook groups that support Trump, hers is a cascade of links to conservative websites, Trump White House social media posts and doctored photos of the president’s enemies, including Pelosi.
For D’Angelo, hearing the president talk was validation of her decision to vote for Trump in 2016. Watching his performance over the past three years — particularly, she said, in securing America from “illegal immigrants” — she has gone from someone who was raised politically independent to someone who now says she believes that the truth is to be trusted only if it comes from Trump.
“I was on the fence like anybody else,” she said. But now, “it’s like a leap of faith for me knowing he’s trying to do the right thing.”
Her digital ticket request was just a drop in the campaign data collection bucket. According to a tweet by Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager who publicly shares data after each rally, the Wildwood event had 158,632 requested tickets. Of the 73,482 voters identified by the campaign as seeking tickets, 10% did not vote in 2016 and more than a quarter had at one point been registered as Democrats. That last figure has campaign officials convinced that Trump is attracting people who are disillusioned with the current slate of presidential candidates, so the campaign cross-references the data it collects from rallies with voter information collected by the Republican National Committee.
“When someone signs up to go to a rally, we can match them up to our big voter file,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director. “From that we can tell if they’ve voted recently, if they’re a Republican or Democrat, did they move from a different state. When we can identify someone as a supporter, that improves all of our modeling and voter scoring.”
Republican strategists say those numbers reveal that the Trump campaign is focusing not just on drawing in believers, but also on making sure they turn out to vote in November.
“People can be vocal Republicans online and in person but never vote,” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said in an interview. “Voters are not necessarily rational actors, and that’s why it’s critical for the campaign to build a one-to-one relationship with them.”
Step two: Share views (and personal data)
During the 90 minutes or so that Trump is onstage at every rally, he delivers what his campaign sees as its best product: a president who reinforces a feeling that the news media and the Democratic Party refuse to see anything positive about his administration or his supporters.
As she waited in line in Wildwood, D’Angelo was approached by a Bikers for Trump member who was volunteering to collect names, addresses and phone numbers from people in the crowd on behalf of the New Jersey Republican Party. (D’Angelo told him she had already signed up.) She groused with an acquaintance, James Toto, a local councilman who is running for Atlantic County freeholder, over LGBT-friendly bathroom policies in public schools.
D’Angelo also took time to check in on her pro-Trump Facebook page, sometimes broadcasting live video for others back home. Many of its members once worked in law enforcement, as did D’Angelo, an Army veteran who is retired from the police force in Paterson, New Jersey She now collects a pension that she supplements with an auto body business she runs with her husband in Brigantine, New Jersey.
At Trump’s rallies and campaign events, his words are fine-tuned to appeal to white, Christian, blue-collar voters. D’Angelo, who is white, said his overtures to the military and law enforcement communities helped win her over. She cannot understand why anyone would dislike Trump, a leader who, as she puts it, “has cojones.”
“The last time I experienced such a patriotic push was 9/11,” D’Angelo said. “Apple pie. Baseball. Christmas. He really embodies the traditions we hold so dear.”
Christmas, as D’Angelo mentioned, is something Trump often mentions at his rallies. He claims that he alone made it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. A “Make America Great Again” collectible ornament costs $60.
D’Angelo likens staying updated on pro-Trump news on Facebook to another full-time job. She and other supporters who look at such pages are nearly certain to encounter the countless ads the Trump campaign has used to flood the platform. Facebook’s fact-checking rules do not apply to political ads, letting candidates spread false or misleading claims.
“It usually stays with current events,” D’Angelo said of her own page, “and it’s giving people a voice who can speak without retaliation.”
Finding friendly faces nearly everywhere in the crowd, D’Angelo complained with a stranger about the rough deal Trump got by inheriting the Obama-era national deficit. When a reporter pointed out that the president had actually helped widen the national debt — despite a campaign-trail pledge to erase it within eight years — she said that Trump had come into the job with a lot on his plate.
“The thing is he’s also straightened things out,” D’Angelo said in the president’s defense.
As she spoke, a message came on the Jumbotron asking Trump supporters to text their phone number to the campaign to stay in touch.
The campaign has aggressively pushed text sign-ups across its digital platforms in order to create a direct relationship with individual supporters to ask them for small donations. The tactic has long been used by political campaigns — 12 years ago, the Obama campaign was praised for its leveraging of SMS texting, by offering special merchandise and targeting voters in specific areas with news about rallies and events.
But Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s former digital director, said the Trump campaign had taken traditional digital tactics in a new direction by spreading misinformation and news of the president’s latest political skirmish — basically, keeping supporters angry enough to vote.
The campaign’s messaging approach often warns of what might happen should a Democrat win the 2020 election. “If Radical Democratic candidates take back the Nation, they’ll ruin everything President Trump has accomplished,” one recent email sent to supporters read, before asking them to contribute money.
“I think the Trump campaign probably makes its people feel like they’re being well served in that he validates all of their grievances,” Goff said.
D’Angelo said her news diet included Twitter, Facebook and news sites like the BBC and CNN — though later she added that “I can’t turn it on” — and Fox News. Occasionally, she checks in on QAnon, the conspiracy website that has a noticeable presence at Trump rallies, to see what people are saying, but she views it more as entertainment.
Ultimately, D’Angelo said, she takes bits and pieces from a variety of websites, crafting her own view of the news, but only believes it if it is confirmed by the president.
“I tune into the president every day, Fox every night,” D’Angelo said. “At night it’s me and my husband. Fox comes on and we get up to speed.”
Step three: Just add money
After making it inside the Wildwoods Convention Center, D’Angelo almost immediately encountered a table laden with Trump merchandise. With $100, she bought T-shirts, bumper stickers and hats, before turning around and spending $70 more on gifts for her brother. Along with her American Express card, she also handed over her driver’s license, which was scanned and put into a database for campaign contributions.
The Trump campaign is adept at rolling out new lines of merchandise, sometimes tailoring it to the latest social media outrage. Most of the merchandise requests are routed through a company called Ace Specialties in Lafayette, Louisiana, whose owner, Christl Mahfouz, can often be seen mingling with fans outside Trump rallies.
Her team sells hats in exchange for money and the buyer’s voting data: Each time supporters buy a T-shirt or a hat at a rally, a digital interface prompts them to turn over their names, addresses and other voter-specific information. This data is then logged as a donation to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and each person’s contribution is saved for future Federal Election Commission reports, according to a campaign official.
For D’Angelo, her purchases would serve another function: Wearing them would give her pro-Trump protective armor after she left the bubble of the rally for the outside world.
“There’s a whole army behind him,” D’Angelo said. “Even in New Jersey.”
Roughly 10 hours after she arrived in Wildwood, the president took the stage and launched into his familiar call-and-responses, reserving special treatment for Democrats, whom he called “do nothing” and “crazy. Eventually, he landed on the news media.
“Do you see the fakers back there?” Trump said, pointing to reporters and camera people in a roped-off area. “Fake news.”
The president also spent time hammering home a key message: that he and his family have sacrificed a life of luxury for him to be president. D’Angelo heard that message loud and clear.
“Sometimes he looks so tired and I go, ‘Ugh, look at him,’” D’Angelo said. “He’s going through so much abuse to protect us. I know he’s strong. I know he can take it. But compliment the man sometimes. I don’t see anything he’s done wrong.”
By the time she left, the hours and money D’Angelo had spent in Wildwood ended up solidifying her bond with a campaign — and a president — who has prioritized his ability to connect with his supporters on an emotional level. And after the rally, she knew her marching orders.
“We need to do everything to get him reelected,” she said, “is what we’re going to do.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company