Center City attorney Wally Zimolong doesn’t think Donald Trump is the best choice for the White House. No one can be sure the real estate mogul is a conservative, largely because he has no voting record. And while Zimolong said his first choice for the presidency is Sen. Ted Cruz, he’ll support Trump anyway as the man gets closer to winning the Republican nomination.
Why? Because there are few other places in the world where a man with no political experience could rise to the point of having the potential to win a seat as one of the most powerful men in the world.
“Donald Trump,” Zimolong said, “is what makes America great.”
Just being a supporter of the man is divisive. One Philadelphia resident angrily scolded me for calling to ask why he’s supporting Trump for president. Another said they’d encountered so much vitriol online that talking to the press on the record simply about who would be the best person for the White House was fear-inducing.
Others are loud and proud supporters, who publicly say they love Trump not because he has the most experience but because he says what he’s thinking even if it isn’t politically correct. And even if it’s construed by the press and many Americans as racism or bigotry. And even if it encourages violence against those who don’t think like them. These conversations about the Republican frontrunner are happening across the country. What’s unique here is that there’s a chance that how Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia, it’s largest city, by extension) votes could actually matter come primary day on April 26.
And Trump support here in Pennsylvania and in some parts of Philadelphia runs deep, from blue collar workers in Northeast Philadelphia to young students studying at Penn to high-end attorneys who work in some of the city’s top law firms.
So yes. Donald Trump’s disruptive brand has resonated — even here, even in a primary that (with one recent exception) hasn’t ever mattered in the national, delegate-and-Electoral-College sense.
Trump’s popularity in PA and Philly
One of the best ways to track a candidate’s support in any given race is to look at their donor base and where their cash is coming from. (“Follow the money” is a pretty good rule in politics.) Because billionaire Trump, who constantly reminds the public that he is very rich, is bank-rolling his own campaign, the donor base is much smaller compared to other candidates.
Still, donations to Trump from Philadelphia have come in. Five Philadelphians — all men — have donated a total of about $1,300 to Trump’s campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance data via the Federal Elections Commission. The donations come from across the city. This map shows each of the zip codes in Philly where Trump donors reside.
Statewide, Trump has held strong in polls with about a quarter of the Republican vote for months. The person who voters think would be second-best has repeatedly switched between Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich. The most recent Franklin and Marshall poll from earlier this year was taken when Gov. Jeb Bush and neurosurgeon Ben Carson were still in the race. Here’s the breakdown of that poll:
What’s interesting about that is the county-by-county breakdown. Philadelphia had, by far, the highest percentage of Trump supporters based on the number of people surveyed, with 50 percent saying they would vote for Trump if the election were held today. No other candidate received higher than single-digit support from Philadelphia voters.
There’s one caveat here: The voter registration in Philadelphia is somewhere around 7-to-1 in favor of Democrats, so Republican support in this city should be taken with a grain (shaker?) of salt. Still, the poll shows Trump support is deep among the Philadelphians who are registered Republicans.
That heavy Democratic base in the city has made Trump’s past here, well, a little weird. He’s a Penn graduate, but isn’t exactly known for touting it or frequently giving back to the school, though his daughter is a senior there now. Meanwhile, former Mayor Michael Nutter was still in office when he called Trump “an asshole” after Trump called for the banning of all Muslims from entering the United States. That prompted a Twitter beef, because, Trump:
Other top politicians have steered clear of criticizing Trump. Sen. Pat Toomey, who is running for re-election in November and is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, publicly supported Rubio. But since Rubio has dropped in the polls, Toomey hasn’t said whether or not he would support Trump if elected.
And, despite the controversy over almost everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth, some have come to like him.
The first elected official in Pennsylvania to endorse Trump was Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner and a 26-year-old Republican who recently took countywide office. Gale, who wasn’t endorsed by the county party, said he “beat the party system” and sees the race he won as a microcosm of Trump’s success on a national scale.
“I like the fact that he’s never held office,” Gale tells Billy Penn. “I think that’s a plus. I think that’s refreshing. And I like the fact that he doesn’t fundraise. He’s not beholden to anyone except the people.”
Milton Street, brother of former Mayor John Street and a former mayoral candidate himself, reportedly met with Trump and vowed to bring him to Philadelphia. He said he’d take Trump to Kensington where he’d show him the drug trade and how it’s wreaked havoc on neighborhoods in Philly.
In addition to them, one of the first congressmen to publicly support Trump was Tom Marino, a Republican from Northeast Pennsylvania. In endorsing Trump, Marino told Politico that endorsing Trump was one of his “life-changing moments,” along with adopting his children and running for Congress.
“There will be many people now who say that if Trump’s [the nominee], I’m not going to vote,” Marino said. “And that’s just emotion at this point.”
Engaging the unengaged
Some experts have said Trump’s impact on races across the country could actually have the opposite effect. He’s inciting interest among people who are disillusioned by the system and many who are angry with the political establishment and haven’t voted in years.
Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia GOP, said he has “no dog in this fight,” but said this is the first time in decades that people in Philadelphia are coming to the office and actively seeking out ways to register to vote. Many of them say it’s because they want to make sure they’re able to vote for Trump by the time the April primary rolls around.
“A lot of people I see are people that have never been involved in the process before,” DeFelice said. “They are getting involved because of Donald Trump.”
There’s also statewide speculation that Trump is doing more than increasing voter registration. Some say he’s causing a higher-than-usual number of Democrats to subscribe to the “Ditch and Switch” movement and change their party affiliation before the primary. According to PennLive, almost 46,000 Pennsylvanians have switched their registration from Democrat to Republican since the beginning of the calendar year.
In Philadelphia, there has been some movement of party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. The affiliation change is certainly higher than Republican to Democrat. But these numbers would hardly tip the scales. The 1,659 people who switched from Democrat to Republican since the beginning of the year is only slightly higher than the 1,602 people who switched from Independent to Democrat.
Here are the figures, as compiled by the Office of City Commissioner Al Schmidt:
A resonating message?
Ross Feinberg, a lifelong Northeast Philly resident running as a Republican in the 5th senatorial district, thinks he can count on the same anger with the system that sent Trump rising in the polls to help him win against incumbent Sen. John Sabatina — so much so that Feinberg’s campaign slogan is “Make Great Northeast Philadelphia Great Again.”
Kinda clunky, sure. But it’s clearly a direct ode to Trump. Feinberg said he’s not sure Trump is the best person for the presidency and he’s not really sure that he’s a real conservative. But to Feinberg and others in Philly and elsewhere planning to cast their vote for Trump, that’s almost irrelevant.
“Whether I agree 100 percent with everything that Trump says or not,” Feinberg said, “is not as important as the fact that he stands there and says what is on his mind.”
So far, things that have been on Trump’s mind include building a wall between America and Mexico, banning Muslims from entering the country, deporting millions of immigrants and insulting pretty much everyone — reporter, politician, pundit — along the way. He had a full-on meltdown when a Fox news reporter dared to ask him tough questions at a debate and, most recently, has been accused of inciting violence at his own rallies. He offered to pay the legal bills of a guy who socked a young black protestor.
But Zimolong, the attorney, said for him and so many others, this is exactly what resonates. Maybe not the rhetoric itself, but the fact that he’s at least willing to say it.
“People like authenticity,” he said. “We don’t see that anymore in our culture. Authenticity in our popular culture means something, and now it’s spilling over into politics.”
Here in gritty, blue-color Philadelphia, being real often rules.
“Politics is a sport to a lot of people, and it’s been played the same way,” DeFelice said. “Players in it understand that the game has a playbook. Donald Trump’s candidacy has thrown out the playbook.”