How Trump Made Small-Town America Matter Again

By Salena Zito

February 24, 2017 5 min read

The first time Donald J. Trump stepped onstage in Pennsylvania in April 2016 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, it was clear something very different was going on in this state with this candidate.

It was not because the rally was massive or boisterous or poorly organized, though all those things were true.

It was different because it was in Pennsylvania.

It was a campaign that was designed to fail from the very beginning. Trump had no grass-roots organization in the first caucus state of Iowa, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had locked up the best operative. He didn't have any street cred with evangelical voters, while Texas Sen. Cruz had not only that but also an app to get them out to vote.

Trump lost Iowa to Cruz, but not by much. Bush was dealt a devastating blow, finishing in sixth place — a bruising indictment of all things establishment.

By the time Trump arrived in New Hampshire, and then South Carolina and Florida, he still had no staff; he still had no money; and he still hadn't built any relationships with the stakeholders who typically brought folks out to vote.

Everywhere Trump went, he was fighting with the establishment and the Democrats — and even eventually fighting his own campaign staffers.

Yet he won all three states, proving he didn't need the establishment; he didn't need the money; and he didn't need the stakeholders.

All he needed was that connection that he had with the people and that simple but brilliant tangible benefit he was offering to take them toward: the cry of "Make America great again."

It was the secret sauce that reporters, pollsters, academics and critics almost all missed.

Trump's plan was a genius gamble: Use the press to get his message out, which he did, doing sometimes 10 to 12 media hits a day. They were sometimes long-winded, rambling streams of consciousness; they were oftentimes controversial; and they never failed to get everyone's attention.

In those moments, he tapped into a populist sentiment of enough with all things big — big banks, big government, big bureaucracies. Voters were tired of adapting to every new elite politically correct edict, tired of being scolded by their betters and, most of all, tired of being left behind.

In primary after primary, they voted against their ideologies and, sometimes, their best interests. They crossed party lines when they could in open primaries and switched parties in closed primaries. Roughly 90,000 registered Democrats in Pennsylvania switched their affiliation to vote for him.

The drive from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg on old U.S. Route 22 to see Trump's first rally began to tell the story of how this candidate would most definitely be the Republican nominee, and possibly the president.

Town after town was worn down by neglect. Main Street shopping districts were half-boarded up, and sometimes only a Dollar General store served as an anchor. Voters were angry with Washington, D.C., disappointed in President Obama and tired that every time they sent the District a message with their votes, elected officials misread it.

Six days later, he won the state in historical numbers over Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, capturing all 67 counties, a feat no one had ever achieved. He won the delegates as well, securing the nomination — not officially but certainly emotionally.

The numbers showed he won the support of the majority of men and women; voters with incomes over $100,000 and under $50,000; Republicans in cities, suburbs and rural areas; voters under 45 and 45 and older; and moderates and conservatives.

To tell the story of how President-elect Donald Trump's campaign won this election is to tell the story of how he won Pennsylvania in the general election.

Every poll told you Trump was losing. Every conversation you had with someone told you otherwise.

Trump's win was threefold: It occurred during populist unrest; he was unlike anyone voters had ever seen before; and the experts misjudged how disliked Obama's policies were because the focus was too much on his personal popularity.

Data were never able to track that type of emotional push against government.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Like it? Share it!

  • 0

Salena Zito
About Salena Zito
Read More | RSS | Subscribe