Politics & Policy

Why Trump Is Growing on Social-Conservative Leaders

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

He pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. He boasted of his friendship with Tony Perkins. He identified Clarence Thomas as his ideal Supreme Court justice.

Donald Trump will almost certainly not be the favored candidate of national social-conservative leaders, hundreds of whom gathered outside Washington last weekend for closed-door auditions with Republican presidential hopefuls. But while Trump didn’t leave the event with endorsements in tow, he succeeded in cozying up to “movement” leaders and cooling their hostility toward his candidacy, according to interviews with attendees.

The Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive umbrella group home to conservative-activist leaders from around the country, held its second and final candidate forum over a long weekend at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The group had invited each of the original 17 candidates to speak to its members, and after hearing from six back in May, it auditioned another six over the weekend: Trump, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore. Each of the candidates was given 30 minutes to speak, plus a 30-minute Q&A session moderated by Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, who serves as CNP’s president.

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According to conversations with a half-dozen attendees, who described the proceedings on condition of anonymity due to CNP’s off-the-record rules, Trump was the star attraction. While attendees shuffled in and out during other presentations, the room was packed and buzzing for the entirety of Trump’s time on stage.

Trump, who was introduced by Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, delivered a two-part homily.

First, he focused on his record of success in the business world, distinguishing himself from politicians who talk a good game but fail to deliver results. Then, he pivoted to demonstrate his kinship with the audience. He did so not by pandering on their pet issues, but by reading from a stack of annotated polling data he’d carried onto the stage. In particular, he noted the cross-tabs showing his support among evangelicals and self-described tea partiers.

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The result was that, unlike other candidates, Trump wasn’t on the defensive in demonstrating his ultra-conservative bona fides. If anything, he took the “grasstops” audience to task for failing to reflect the grassroots passion that has fueled his campaign.

“His message was, ‘Your people are for me, and all you leaders ought to be for me too. You guys need to realize where your followers are, and get in line with them,’” says one prominent activist who was in the room. “And he did that by reading poll results, line by line. He is a genius when it comes to using the bandwagon effect.”

Trump’s speech was very typical: recalling his victories, pointing to impressive poll results, and daring those listening not to get in line.

In this sense, attendees say, Trump’s speech was very typical: recalling his victories, pointing to impressive poll results, and daring those listening not to get in line. But his performance was lent an added dimension by the Q&A session with Perkins, a hugely influential activist whom Trump showered with praise from the stage.

Pressed on questions of jurisprudence, abortion, and ideology, Trump supplied answers that drew several standing ovations. Attendees said it was obvious he isn’t fluent in their language — he struggled to understand a question from Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, about “women’s health funding” being code for abortion funding — but he hit the right notes nonetheless, earning huge applause for promising to defund Planned Parenthood and naming Thomas as his model jurist.

#share#By the end of the event, some who had heard from Trump on previous occasions — and thought he was never particularly well-prepared to address a specific audience’s concerns — said it was evident he and his team had been briefed on the mission and composition of CNP. In fact, they had been.

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Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum — a social conservative group founded by Phyllis Schlafly — said Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski phoned him from the campaign plane an hour before they touched down, asking for a synopsis of the event. A little while later, when Trump’s entourage arrived, some senior officials sought out Martin and other activists for private meetings before their boss’s speech.

Such preparation has not necessarily been a hallmark of Trump’s appearances, and could signify a new, more professional phase of his campaign.

“They were doing homework beforehand. This was not a roll-in-and-say-what’s-on-your-mind event,” Martin says. “It was impressive.”

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Trump’s performance, and the courtship of social conservative leaders by a host of GOP candidates, comes as CNP and its influential members have talked openly about uniting behind a single anti-establishment challenger. Their thinking, crystallized over the past few years, is that conservatives can only defeat the establishment favorite if they coalesce around one alternative.

CNP’s members continue to view Jeb Bush as their most likely opponent. Ted Cruz stole the show at the group’s first candidate forum in May, and it’s widely whispered that top conservatives — from Perkins on down — are preparing to pledge their support to the Texas senator sometime this fall or early next year.

#related#Trump’s overachieving performance on Saturday doesn’t mean he walked out of Ritz-Carlton with support from social-conservative leaders; by all accounts, he didn’t. But with Trump remaining steady atop the polls, and establishment Republicans beginning to realize that he could be their nominee, his step toward neutralizing a potential bloc of opposition could prove significant down the road.

“What I saw from him blew me away — not because he won over people in the room but because he disarmed people in the room. Conservatives who might have risen up to stop him, they no longer view him as an enemy,” said another prominent activist in attendance.

He added, “The conservative movement is much more antagonistic toward Jeb Bush than Donald Trump. Coming out of this weekend, I see a conservative movement that would be more comfortable with Donald Trump as the nominee than Jeb Bush.”

— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.

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