Last minute political rallies in a battleground state, 2016
The red candidate
I attended a rally for the republican candidate for president on Monday, October 31 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The rally was held at Delta Plex, a small basketball arena. I went with one of my best friends. We had both cast our votes already. We were surprised that the celebrity candidate had come to Grand Rapids, a relatively small town, within the last eight days of his campaign.
We parked in a residential neighborhood about a mile from the venue, realizing that there would be limited space. As we walked, we talked about how strange it is to see a celebrity — someone whom you have read about, seen pictures of, watched countless minutes and hours of video — in person for the first time. While neither my friend nor I had ever celebrated this candidate, we still could not believe that in a short while, we were going to see and hear him for the first time in person.
When we got to the arena, we were not met with an overwhelming line. After passing through a TSA-style metal detector, we entered the nearly-full arena and made our way to the tallest level of the bleachers where we had spotted a few empty seats. The bleachers on either side of the floor were mostly full, seating about one thousand people each, by my estimate. The floor was nearly full of people as well, a total of maybe five or six thousand people.
We settled in, observing the crowd from above. A local Michigan politician was on stage getting the crowd ready for the candidate. I only caught a few snippets of his diatribe: “If you don’t want to support Trump, shut up.” And later, “If you don’t know today that you want to be with Donald J. Trump, you are a loser.”
I suppose that these kind of aggressively pro-candidate statements are to be expected at a rally, but I was still surprised. I looked around the room while he was speaking. A lot of people in red hats were waving their arms, waving their signs, and leading chants like, “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “Lock her up! Lock her up!” as a playlist of spooky songs played over the loudspeaker which were both seasonally and situationally appropriate.
The official signs that littered the audience were mostly all red, white, or blue, each with popular and familiar campaign slogans printed on them. There were also a number of pink signs intended specifically for women supporting the candidate. A six-year-old girl who sat in front of me was holding one such sign. I asked her mother why it was important for her to be there that day. She replied,
“To educate my kid. I went to the Toledo rally with my other daughter last week. This rally is more of the same.”
I asked her to clarify. She replied,
“More picketers for Hillary outside. I feel like if you support Hillary you can be open about it, but not Trump. If you are open about supporting Trump you get harassed, but not Hillary — and she’s the criminal!”
I asked her why she chose to support this candidate. She replied,
“I just want change. I was for Obama for his first term because I wanted change.”
The candidate was late. He didn’t come out on stage till 1:20pm, nearly an hour and a half after his scheduled start time. While we waited, I talked to a man who was in his mid-fifties and was sitting with his son who was about my age. I asked the man why he felt it was important for him to come to the rally and show support for the candidate. He replied,
“This is a critical election for us. Liberties, constitutional rights, and supreme court justices are all at stake.”
I asked him if those were the most important things for him this election. He replied,
“Yes. Our country is at risk — we want justice for all. And we like Governor Pence. We see it as though we have two options: Trump/Pence or Hillary/Kaine, and we can’t go along with Hillary’s corruption.”
He continued to talk about second amendment rights, the importance of the military, and the democratic candidate’s mishandling of emails and confidential government information, but I wasn’t exactly listening closely.
When the candidate eventually took the stage, nearly an hour and a half after his scheduled start time, he focused mostly on the economy — specifically promising to restore Michigan’s economy which has been floundering since the auto industry had been outsourced.
I didn’t stay for whole speech. What I heard was the familiar narrative which seeks to portray his opponent as anti-American. According to him, she isn’t just his opponent, she’s America’s opponent. His rhetoric begs the question, ‘how can the American people elect a person who is fundamentally against them?’
The candidate’s appeals are emotional. For all the things he said that I had heard before, he said one thing that I was surprised by and it has stuck with me ever since. The candidate said, “Go to the polls on November 8th and vote with all your heart, vote with all your soul.”
The blue candidate
I attended one of the final rallies for the democratic candidate for president on Monday, November 7th, the day before election day at Grand Valley State University, just outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I went with a different friend this time. We had both already voted. Other friends joined us a bit later in line. We arrived thirty minutes after the doors opened, people were already stretched about a mile from the entrance, single file. By my estimate, the crowd was made up of about forty percent college-aged people, forty percent middle-aged people, and the remaining twenty percent was a combination of young children and elderly people. The younger kids danced in the open spaces and seemed to be expressing, in their own way, a mix of boredom and anticipation. When there was a curb or grassy area to play on, the kids would run over, always within sight of their parents, expressing their watched independence.
As we waited, I asked one young woman why it was important for her to be at the rally. She replied,
“I think, come tomorrow, Hillary Clinton will be the first woman president and I wanted to be in the room with her the day before that happens.”
I asked her why she chose to support the candidate. She replied,
“There has never been anybody more qualified. She’s been a public servant her whole life. She’s been secretary of state, first lady, and a state senator. There’s never been anyone more qualified.”
As we inched closer to the auditorium, the tail of the line never stopped extending farther and farther out, with more people coming late by the minute. I saw an older gentleman, maybe seventy-five or eighty years old sitting on the curb up ahead. I approached him and sat beside him. I asked why he thought it was important that he come to the rally and show his support. He replied,
“I’m a big fan of Hillary Clinton. I like what she stands for. I fear what Trump stands for. This is a historic opportunity to see someone who may become president.”
As we looked at the line, moving slowly and continuing to get longer, we both understood that we would not be able to see the candidate in person that day. He added, jokingly,
“I have this fantasy of Hillary coming out with a bullhorn to energize the crowd. But that’s just fantasy.”
Around four o’clock, when the candidate was scheduled to take the stage, one of the friends I was with pulled out her phone and opened a live broadcast that was streaming video from inside the auditorium. We were able to listen as we crawled toward the source. At four-thirty, the line suddenly began moving very fast — so fast that we broke into a light jogging pace and the formal single-file line began to spread into an indistinct running mob. When we reached the doors, an usher informed us that the event was closed and no more people would be admitted into the auditorium. We were encouraged to proceed into a courtyard where the audio from inside was being broadcast over loud speakers to an overflow crowd of a couple hundred people.
In the courtyard, I wandered amongst the crowd, taking pictures of people who had unique signs, pins, shirts, or hats. As the candidate called for an end to the gender pay gap and an embrace of equal pay for equal work, there was loud applause and explosive cheer. She did not frame it as a women’s issue, but as a family issue; indeed, it is an American issue.
There were a few people who waved signs as a symbol of agreement. These signs were mostly official campaign signs with words and phrases like “Hillary,” “Clinton / Kaine,” “Fighting for us,” and “Stronger together,” but there were also some homemade signs. One said “Make it nasty” in reference to the “nasty woman” comment the republican candidate mumbled during the final presidential debate. One sign read “I campaigned for Bill in 1996 and I did it again 20 years later for Hillary.”
One individual in the crowd, began weaving and holding high a paper sign with the phrase “Hillary for Prison” printed on it, and he was chanting “Hillary for prison.” He was met with no response at first, until he persisted. Then one person, wearing a Detroit Lions jersey with the name “Sanders” printed on the back (Barry, not Bernie), approached the man and tore the sign out of his hand before quickly retreating. The two got close to each other, in an aggressive way, but they did not fight. Other members of the crowd intervened to make sure that everyone maintained peace. The man kept chanting “Hillary for Prison,” with his hands cupped around his mouth, but slowly, one person at first, then a few others, and eventually, all of us began overlapping his call for “prison” with our own call for “president!”
When the candidate was finished, most people near me began to disperse, but some crowded the half-wall that was directly ahead, beyond which there was a drop-off to a lower level. The crowd believed that perhaps the candidate would exit from below and they could catch a glimpse of the future president of the United States, but she left by another way.