It’s just before 11 a.m. and several hundred people are already lined up outside the Sheltair Hangar at the airport in Lakeland, Fla.
They’re here to see Donald Trump. And they don’t care that the Republican presidential candidate isn’t due for at least another four hours.
Viscella Graves got here at 7:30 a.m. and expected to be the first in line to see the man she says will save America.
“But there was this young fellow who came in from North Dakota. He got here at 3:30 a.m. this morning,” she says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the mass of people pressed against the still-padlocked gates outside the hangar.
These are Trump’s people. All but a handful are white. Most are middle-aged or older.
They don’t give a fig about the news reports that Trump bragged a decade ago about forcing himself on women without their consent.
They don’t care that many of his statements have proven not to be true. Or that he didn’t (doesn’t?) pay taxes.
They don’t care that what he says about Mexicans borders on being racist; what they care about is the border with Mexico. “Big time,” as their candidate likes to say to punctuate a point.
“We got a lot of people here who don’t have jobs right now. Illegal immigrants are taking a lot of the jobs,” says Susan Chew, who came to the rally with her husband Tony.
Trump has tapped into the anger of white voters like the Chews who live in this part of Florida, along the Interstate 4 corridor that connects Tampa on the west coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast.
Critical swing state
Florida is a critical swing state in presidential elections with its 29 electoral college votes. If Trump is to win the election Nov 8, he has to win Florida. Only one Republican has won the White House without Florida in the last 100 years, and that was Coolidge way back in 1924.
But to win Florida, Trump has to win along I-4, where conservative-minded white voters now jostle with the unionized workforces of the theme parks near Orlando, and an influx of Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speakers who don’t seem to lean Republican like the Cuban refugees who came to Florida before them.
All together, these factors make Florida unpredictable and maddening, and an important stop this week for both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton after their second and especially nasty debate on the weekend.
Political science professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida in Tampa oversees the Sunshine State Survey, an in-depth poll of Floridians’ attitudes.
She says Trump is expanding the number of registered white voters in the state.
“He’s tapped into people who feel totally alienated and left behind by Washington,” she says in an interview that will air this weekend on CBC Radio’s The House.
“They are just so frustrated with the politics as usual that they see Trump as something totally different and they have circled around him.”
‘He’s not a politician’
That’s a commonly heard refrain in Lakeland.
“We just want all the corrupt politicians gone,” Kurt Worlock says when asked why he’s supporting Trump. “He’s not an insider. He’s not a politician.”
And the people who have jammed the Lakeland airport aren’t your ordinary political activists. It’s still only noon and the place has taken on a carnival atmosphere. Hucksters are selling caps with Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” across the front. Shirts, mostly in red, white and blue, are selling briskly at $ 10 each.
“My most popular is one that reads, ‘Hillary’s Lies Matter,'” says a woman who won’t give her name because she skipped out of work to make a few bucks. She thinks Trump, the businessman, would understand.
There are monster trucks emblazoned with The Donald’s likeness and “Trump 2016.” And a guy wearing a flowing blond wig and the dark suit with red tie Trump favours. Both are popular with folks here who line up for photos.
But the biggest draw is the woman dressed in a striped prison jumpsuit wearing a Hillary Clinton mask. It’s in undeniably poor taste, but when Trump says one of his first acts as president will be to appoint a special prosecutor to put Clinton in jail, it’s hardly a surprise.
Local Republican congressman Dennis Ross takes the stage as Trump’s warm-up act. These days he’s one of a dwindling number of campaigning Republicans willing to be seen with Trump, let alone openly endorse him, after his views on women came to light last week.
“I was elected six years ago to bring change to Washington,” Ross tells the crowd. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to surrender the White House to Hillary Clinton.”
By now, the several thousand Trump supporters have been standing on the blazing tarmac for hours. When Trump’s plane finally lands shortly after 3 p.m., the clouds have rolled in and it starts to drizzle.
His speech is mostly boilerplate. He’ll renegotiate NAFTA. He’ll bring jobs back to the U.S. He’ll build that wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it.
But most of the speech is directed at Clinton. The mere mention of her refusal to hand over 33,000 emails to authorities investigating her private server prompts chants of “Lock her up!”
Kurt Worlock and his wife Tammy say they like what they heard. Especially about Clinton.
“She’s a crook. She should be in jail,” Tammy says as her husband chuckles. “She called us deplorables. She’s the one who’s deplorable.”
Kurt’s been to a couple of Trump rallies. He’s confident Trump will carry the I-4 vote and Florida with it. And that voters in this state will carry Trump all the way to the White House.
“I see the crowds everywhere for his rallies and I can’t believe the polls are true.”
Pollster Susan MacManus agrees this election is different than any before. She says reality show television has caught up with politics and appears to be changing some of its features, including the parties’ bases.
“Everything is very soft, very pliable and so confusing,” she says. “This is the election of uncertainties. But one thing I will say is, at the end of it all, this is not going to be a healing election for America.”