At the tailgate outside Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday afternoon, hundreds of football fans gathered around a tent hosted by the Republican party of Iowa, hoping to see Donald Trump. They shouted for hours, tussled with protesters and then cried “Trump, Trump, Trump” when they saw a helicopter they thought he might be on.
The mostly male crowd gripped beers, constantly asking when the real estate mogul and Republican frontrunner would appear. But they didn’t seem bothered by the fact he was running late. One college-aged girl said: “Donald Trump is just like Hilary Duff [actor and singer from the last decade], a diva. She showed up an hour and a half late to a concert of hers I went to.”
About a dozen protesters arrived bearing a banner in Iowa state colors saying “Students Against Bigotry”. Others held handmade signs with slogans like “A Vote For Trump is a Vote For White Supremacy”. Things got tense as some of the Trump supporters went back and forth with protesters, shouting at them and even tearing a sign. One of the Trump supporters observed of the protesters disapprovingly: “Only one of them is white.”
A protester, Julian Castilla of Winterset, Iowa, seemed to patiently accept the reception that he and his fellow activists received. “It’s further proving our point that they are just bigots,” he said.
Most of those waiting for Trump didn’t get involved. Tyler Steiner, a freshman at Iowa State from St Paul, Minnesota, showed up in a bootleg Trump T-shirt he had paid $30 for online. It was his “favorite shirt to wear. It causes a lot of attention.”
The 19-year-old who described himself as a Republican felt confident that Trump’s financial success meant he had the solutions to run the United States. “He’s a billionaire. Are you?” the freshman college student asked. He added: “If you’re a billionaire he knows what he’s doing.”
Trevor Massacar – a senior from St Charles, Illinois who was wearing a Make America Great Again hat along with an Iowa state T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his shoulders – said: “I think this country needs somebody who can come in and control the economy.”
Few seemed too concerned about Trump’s history of divisive comments. As Josh Hilbert of Corwirth, Iowa told the Guardian: “Trump pisses 40% of the people off but 60% thinks he’s a fucking badass.”
Trump wasn’t the only candidate who visited the official Republican tailgate tent, though the others got a mixed reception. Scott Walker was offered the chance to play cornhole, a game popular at tailgates where players take turns throwing beanbags into a hole in an elevated wooden plank. The Wisconsin governor, who started as a frontrunner but has since faded in the polls, got his first bag close to the target but each succeeding bag ended up further and further off course. Even after he was given a few extra bags to toss. His hosts weren’t fazed though they did call him “Mr Rubio”.
Walker didn’t answer many questions about policy and dodged one about whether college football players should be paid: “I’ll leave that to the NCAA, I love college football, I’ll watch it no matter what.” Walker also dismissed his falling poll numbers, saying he was convinced voters would be won over by his message of “wreaking havoc in Washington”.
Rubio had attended early and not only didn’t play cornhole but alienated a couple of attendees when his entourage walked through their game.
Rand Paul came around earlier in the day when the area was far less crowded. The Kentucky senator told reporters: “We think the youth vote is ours for the taking” as he tried to make his way through a midday crowd that was still somewhat sober. Paul turned down a beer – “I gotta keep working.” The proffered can of Busch Light was left dangling for a moment before a reporter eventually took advantage of the charity.
Later Paul did weigh in on college football, saying he would like to see college athletes be able to earn “deferred money” through advertising. The athletes could endorse products while in school and then able to collect the money afterwards. In the Kentucky senator’s opinion, while he thought athletes should be able to profit from their achievements on the playing field, “ it doesn’t seem right for them to have all the money in college.”
The Kentucky senator eventually left grumbling – he had already pressed the flesh enough and he kept on getting questions from a mixture of journalists and activists. “I don’t think we need to do an interview with everybody who thinks they are a journalist,” he told a campaign aide as they walked off to their next stop.
Questions from journalists were not something Trump had to contend with though. As he left the tent he was surrounded by a swarming mob of media and fans. His bodyguards occasionally had clear paths between rows of parked cars with one man in an earpiece going ahead and shoving in sideview mirrors, lest they graze the Republican candidate. He seemed to only notice when the crowd occasionally stopped to chant his name: “Trump, Trump, Trump,” they yelled. The real estate mogul stopped and moved his right hand rhythmically like a symphony conductor, his cufflinks glinting.
Some supporters tried to get Trump to stop for selfies or autograph signs. Others just reached out in hopes of touching him as if they were seeking to be cured of scrofula.
Trevor Massacar shouted: “I’m wearing your hat!” Trump replied: “Great hat.” The college senior asked for a selfie and leaned in towards Trump to take the picture with his iPhone. But he hesitated for a second and Trump moved on.
Afterwards Massacar said he was “distraught” – but added “I shouldn’t blame him. I had like two seconds and I wasn’t ready.” Like many Republicans, for him Donald Trump could do no wrong.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015