OXON HILL, Md. – Four years ago, candidate Donald Trump didn’t bother attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, jabbing that he was too controversial for the buttoned-up, establishment Republican gathering.
This year, as bedrock conservatives gather outside the nation’s capital for the conference, they're working on how to sell Trump's brand of Republicanism beyond the party faithful.
Ralph Cropley, 50, who came from upstate New York, recalls feeling skeptical of Trump when he didn’t show up for the 2016 conference. He's since been won over.
“He made all these promises, and every politician does,” Cropley said. “The difference is he seems to be actually working to fulfill every one of those.”
With the 2020 election just eight months away, Trump campaign advisers see the gathering as a golden opportunity to train hardcore activists to push the Trump message beyond the converted.
The conference has featured multiple “Words That Work” sessions — covering abortion, health care, immigration and more — tailored to teaching conservative faithful how to amplify and sell the president's message.
The effort comes as the Trump campaign is feeling increasingly optimistic about the president’s reelection chances following his acquittal in a Senate impeachment trial and amid signs that Democrats might be headed toward a drawn-out and fractious battle to pick their nominee to oppose him.
Trump himself will address CPAC activists on Saturday, his fourth straight address to the group since his election in 2016.
He’s used the address in recent years to lash out at Democrats as obstructionists who have sought to undercut his presidency and promote his image as an unconventional politician who has upended Washington. Last year, he walked out on stage to give a bear hug to a U.S. flag before delivering a two-hour stem-winder in which he denounced Democrats as the party of "the socialist nightmare."
Brett Lloyd, a 2016 Trump campaign pollster, and Rick Figueroa, a Hispanic outreach adviser to Trump’s reelection campaign, told activists that Trump is in position to potentially win as much as 44% of Hispanic voters this time. That would be giant leap from 2016, when he won about 3 in 10 Latino voters, and would put him on par with former President George W. Bush’s 2004 performance with the group.
To get there, Figueroa said, Republicans targeting Hispanics need to stay focused on broader values of honor and respect, and underscore how the president’s handling of the economy has led to record employment for minority groups.
“Everybody thinks immigration and Hispanics and that’s it. That’s just not the case,” Figueroa told activists. “Two mistakes we make as a group is that we treat Hispanics as a monolithic group. That’s a horrible mistake. ... The second is that we’re not a one-issue community. We want good schools, we want good jobs and we want the government to stay out of our business.”
Anti-abortion advocates also believe that Trump’s supporters can attract more independents and moderate Democrats with calibrated messaging on the issue. Earlier this year, Trump became the first sitting president to attend the annual March for Life rally in Washington.
Mallory Quigley, vice president for communications at the Susan B. Anthony List, told activists that focusing on Democratic presidential candidates’ support for taxpayer funding of abortion and late-term abortion has resonated in battleground states in the past. The group advocates for lawmakers who support limiting abortion rights.
“We have had great success in talking to people who say want to support a pro-abortion Democratic candidate because of their position on immigration or health care or something else,” Quigley said. “But when they learn about the truth of this extremism, they can be persuaded to vote pro-life.”
In this hyper-polarized political atmosphere, though, some Trump fans said they aren’t confident that there are many who don’t have their minds made up.
As conference participants waited in line for a training session called “Words that Work to Persuade: Immigration,” attendees traded stories about Trump-related blowback they’ve faced from strangers and loved ones.
One woman from an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C., told another woman how she’s been labeled by “limousine liberals” in her community as racist for supporting Trump. A woman from Philadelphia relayed that her sister avoided her for three weeks after Trump’s 2016 victory — going so far as to attend a different church service so they wouldn’t cross paths.
Don Vecsey, who also attended the immigration session, said he doesn’t even mention Trump’s name in front of some family members and friends to try to avoid confrontation.
“People should be more open-minded to reconsidering him,” Vecsey said. “Name another economy like this one. “
Gwennie Cole, 68, a first-time attendee, takes a different tack. She speaks up frequently in favor of Trump and about her concerns that Democratic and “deep state” efforts are undermining the president. Her opinions, she said, appalled her two adult daughters and her husband of 46 years.
The strain became so great that she said she no longer speaks with her children, who she referred to as “Bernie bros.” In December, she moved out of her family’s home and into her own apartment.
Cole insists she doesn’t have any regrets about her passion for Trump spurring the break-up of her family.
“That’s what Trump means to me,” she said. “Trump is that important to this country.”