NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Donald Trump took his colorful campaign to Nashville on Saturday, where he courted a constituency that some say he is tailor-made for: the tea party.
He competed in a presidential straw poll here — winning handily with 52% of the vote — and addressed the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, a group that boasts it was “the tea party before there was a tea party.”
Trump’s appearance was highly anticipated at the conservative gathering: As a candidate, he’s hitting the same notes — anger at conventional politics, contempt for Washington and distrust of special interests and lobbyists — that propelled the tea party movement in 2010.
“You have not been treated fairly,” Trump told the gathering Saturday. “You know, people talk about the tea party, and you talk about marginalized? At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t. The tea party people are incredible people. These are people who work hard and love the country and they get beat up all the time by the media.”
Many tea partiers remain undecided
With his fiery rhetoric and utter disdain for Washington, the billionaire real estate mogul has already captured the interest of many tea partiers, including former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who praised him for having the “guts to say it like it is.”
But many tea party activists remain undecided at this stage in the cycle as they consider a number of GOP candidates who fit the “outsider” mold. And some have the same question about Trump as establishment Republicans and members of the media: What are his policy proposals?
“He seems to fire everyone up,” NFRA President Sharron Angle said of Trump. With the tea party’s backing, Angle attempted to dethrone the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid, in one of the most high-profile races in 2010.
“He seems to be striking a chord with voters. There’s anger, as evidenced by the response to the NSA scandal, the IRS scandal, the Benghazi scandal,” she said. “They are also very cynical because they feel that they’ve been lied to over and over and over again.”
At campaign rallies, Trump ticks off reasons he differs from his rivals: His tremendous wealth means he doesn’t need favors from donors; he has decades of business experience; and he is not a career politician.
“The tea party is looking for somebody that didn’t spend their entire life planning to be president,” said Ryan Rhodes, who worked for former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and is now the chairman of the Iowa Tea Party.
But he noted that there are multiple White House candidates this cycle tapping into a “movement of grass-roots unrest.”
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson — who Rhodes supports — and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina are both attempting to win public office for the first time.
And each of the three first-term Republican senators seeking the party’s presidential nomination — particularly Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — are aligned with the tea party movement and arrived in the Senate by defeating establishment-backed opponents. At Saturday’s straw poll, Cruz finished second, capturing nearly a quarter of the ballots cast, while Paul finished fourth with less than 4% of the vote.
A new Quinnipiac University Poll this week highlighted the widespread aversion to D.C. insiders. The survey showed that 73% of Republicans believe someone who is a “D.C. outsider” would make a better president than a candidate with Washington experience.
Tapping into voters’ anger
Republican political consultant Roger Stone, who recently parted ways with Trump’s campaign but remains a fervent supporter of his longtime friend, said the candidate is soaring because when he says that “the entire game of politics and government is rigged against the people,” it has “credibility because he has enough money to be independent of the system.”
He added that the candidate’s broad appeal has everything to do with the fact that “voters are more sour and more angry than they’ve ever been.”
Tea party activists caution, however, that they’re looking for a presidential candidate who can do more than just vent angrily about Washington. There’s no one umbrella organization representing the movement, but over the years, its grass-roots activists have become more focused on the workings of policy and deliberate about local organization.
Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, said in the year 2016, a candidate like Trump would have to put out detailed policy proposals on issues of fiscal responsibility and slashing federal regulations to win tea party support.
“Once you understand the frustration, how do you solve the problem?” Budowich asked. “It’s not enough to capture the frustration. You’re going to have to go further than that, and that speaks to the maturation of the tea party movement.”
Yet for many voters, what’s resonating most for now is Trump’s unvarnished talk.
At his campaign events in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa, voters consistently say they are drawn to Trump’s unorthodox campaign style and candidacy. Some marvel that despite being a famous TV personality and undoubtedly a member of the “1%,” Trump’s message is plain and relatable.
“He sounds like a good American. He sounds like me,” said Roy Harwood, a 57-year-old Trump supporter from Oskaloosa, Iowa, at a campaign event there last month. “He’s from New York, but he sounds like an Iowan.”
CNN’s Noah Gray contributed to this report.