LYNCHBURG, Va. — Donald Trump has joined a growing list of Republican presidential candidates courting the young conservative vote at Liberty University.
Around 9,000 students listened to Trump speak Monday for an MLK Day event at the conservative Christian campus in southern Virginia.
Liberty has a history of hosting conservative speakers. GOP Candidate Ben Carson spoke in November, and Sen. Ted Cruz announced his presidential bid at the university last March. The campus is unique for its large base of young conservatives. More than 14,500 students attend class on campus.
Trump’s reception at Liberty was mixed among a few staunch supporters and many skeptical yet interested students. His rhetoric on jobs and national security went over best..
“As a Liberty student, going into the real world soon, that’s something that’s important to me is, am I going to have a job?” said 20-year-old student Justice Gilbert, who did not identify as a Trump supporter. “It seemed like a lot of strategies he talked about were good opportunities to add jobs to the nation.”
Generally, millennials tend to lean more Democratic. In 2014, they supported Democrats at a rate of 51 percent, compared to 35 percent who supported Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
But, Republicans have more potential for support from young voters this year, said Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a conservative activist organization that works to engage millennials in elections and campus activism.
“They’re better organized and energized than they were in 2012,” he said of young conservatives.
Based on his organization’s polling data with more than 1,000 campus partners, Kirk said about 60 percent to 70 percent of young conservative voters support Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
“The common denominator among those three is an anti-Washington type of train of thought that has been growing,” he said. “Being anti-establishment, being more about principal and less about party.”
Paul, Cruz and Rubio have all built student organizations to drum up support, he said. But in general, he said, the Republican Party still lags behind in youth engagement.
“Every single Democratic debate, they have some form of a student asking a question or a celebrity or YouTube star,” Kirk said. “I don’t see the same type of outreach that the Republicans create as effectively.”
The Liberty students who supported Trump liked his candid speaking style, criticizing the “politically correct” movement on other college campuses.
“I thought it was just an amazing display of courage to say the things that people want to say but they can’t in today’s day and age,” said 21-year-old Timothy Smith, a strong Trump supporter.
But, not all young conservatives are attracted to the candidate’s brazenness, Smith added. He thinks Trump isn’t popular among some millennials because of negative media coverage.
Trump has not had the same youth support as other Republican candidates, Charlie Kirk said. At a Turning Point retreat of nearly 300 young conservatives, Trump received just six votes in a Republican candidate straw poll.
“Especially amongst younger audiences, what I hear is a lot of opposition and a lot of hesitancy to rally behind him because his tone and approach can be argued as xenophobic,” Kirk said.
For his supporters, Trump’s outspokenness represents his determination to stand his ground on issues.
“He doesn’t speak flawlessly, but I don’t think his supporters want him to speak flawlessly,” said Ryan Conaghan, 21, who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
“Maybe we are too politically correct and we’re letting people beat us in deals and we’re being pushovers,” he said. “That’s not really what we’re raised on …”