Ed Martin looked around his Missouri delegation and didn’t recognize half the people. Veteran North Carolina politicos said the same thing about the contingent from their state.
Most big names, including four of the last five Republican presidential nominees, have stayed away. The middle deck of convention site Quicken Loans Arena, reserved for VIPs, has been largely empty. Delegates sit in their seats during the speeches, rather than engage in the usual lingering and mingling that’s always been a staple of these affairs. And the speeches are seldom by big political names, but actors, Trump family friends and people with stories to tell about how the Obama administration ruined their lives.
This is a Republican convention unlike any in recent times.
Looking for a familiar face? Nominee Donald Trump may be a star in his own right. But on the convention floor, there aren’t a lot of recognizable faces among the 2,472 delegates.
This is Trump’s convention, all right, a gathering of outsiders and political renegades. So Melania Trump’s speech included parts of a 2008 Michelle Obama speech? The media’s blowing it up beyond reason, they say. Mike Pence seems lost? That’s OK, we’re here for Trump.
At the vanguard of this new sort of convention are hundreds of younger delegates. With the insiders declining to come, that opened a door for a new generation to emerge here.
They’re people such as Will Carter, 18, from Savannah, Ga. He got the political bug early. When he was 8, George W. Bush traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a Group of Eight economic summit. Carter was so taken with the trip that for his birthday party, he had a G-8 theme, complete with a birthday cake with flags of the participating nations.
Everything and anything Donald Trump has tried to do is for the best. Will Carter, 18, delegate from Georgia
Being here is a lifelong dream for him and many others. “It’s like Disneyland for political geeks,” said Sara Walsh, 37, from Ashland, Missouri.
She has been arriving at the convention early each day to get a seat near the VIP section. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walked by, she got a selfie with him. “THE Newt Gingrich!” she beamed.
The young delegates realize, though, that they’ve got a tough road ahead, particularly since the party insiders who usually would be here to help them aren’t. And there’s no guarantee that back home, they’ll be ready to organize and mobilize for Trump.
A McClatchy-Marist poll earlier this month showed that in a four-way race, including Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Trump had 22 percent among those aged 18-29 and 27 percent among those 30-44. The older voters got, the better he did.
“As a whole, young people view Trump unfavorably, with young women and non-white youth … viewing him even more unfavorably,” according to analysis last month by CIRCLE at Tufts University, which studies youth voting.
Trump does well with younger people with no college degree, the study found, “but these young people tend to have a fairly low overall turnout.”
The millennial delegates are well aware of the challenge. “I would change our tone and tenor,” said Samantha Beeler, 28, a delegate from Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Jessica Fernandez, 31, a delegate from Miami, wears a “Log Cabin Republican” pin in the floor, support for the conservative gay rights organization. Gregory Angelo, its president, called the 2016 platform “the most anti-LGBT platform in the party’s 162-year history.”
“The party needs to move with the times,” said Carter.
Fernandez agreed, explaining, “We were enlightened in a different day and age.”
I’m a big LGBT supporter. Jessica Fernandez, 31, Republican convention delegate from Miami
They’re here largely because of Trump. “We’re fed up with partisan bickering,” said Jack Pickett, 18, a delegate from Yakima, Washington.
There’s also a cadre of millennials who eagerly back the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Elliott Kelley, 20, a delegate from Easley, S.C., was an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “From the Bible, we can discern where we stand on social issues,” he said.
But one reason younger supporters hope friends will look to Trump is that, unlike many of his conservative rivals, he rarely dwells on social issues. Trump is regarded as sympathetic to gay rights, though his forces did little to soften the party platform’s strong stand against same sex marriage.
“Trump didn’t speak to social issues,” said Jeremy Wiggins, 21, a delegate from Ellington, Missouri. He focused on what Wiggins sees as more important, shaking up a creaky, gridlocked Washington system.
“I like the way he speaks his mind. He’s relatable,” said James Gatz, 20, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Trump also had something else going for him: A lot of the millennials grew up watching him on television. His shows, “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” aired from 2004 to 2015.
“I started watching in 2006, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since,” said Turner, the West Virginia delegate
Most of all, these delegates agree with Trump on economics and immigration. They want lower taxes, less government, a U.S.-Mexico wall and an end to partisan gridlock. And they enjoy hearing his blistering, off-the-cuff commentary. Finally, they say.
“It’s our message,” said State Rep. Justin Burr, 31, of Albemarle, N.C. “But amped up.”