PURCELLVILLE, Va. — When Marco Rubio parachuted into the center of the modern American homeschooling movement today, he got a loving welcome—along with some stark reminders that not all devout Christians are Rubio converts.
It’s another indicator of the risks and rewards to be found in reaching out to some of the country’s most devoted and driven voters.
Purcellville is home to Patrick Henry College, a Christian school an hour outside of Washington, D.C.—with just 279 students, it’s hardly the place you would expect a presidential campaign to visit, especially one short on time before Super Tuesday.
But the school is the intellectual capital of the American homeschooling community, representing 1.77 million students across the country, and as much as , somewhere between three to four percent of all school-age children nationwide.
And while those who were homeschooled—and their families—represent a comparatively small slice of the Republican electorate, they’re disproportionately more likely to vote, volunteer and participate in the political process.
Individuals who were homeschooled are far more involved in politics, being significantly more likely to contribute money for a political cause, work in the field, attend a public meeting or vote, according to a study by the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“Twenty years ago, homeschooling was illegal in some parts of the country,” said Will Estrada, a director at the association and the co-chair of ‘Homeschoolers for Cruz.’ Estrada compared it to the political participation of the LGBT community—“they’re far more politically active than other segments because they remember what it was like when it was illegal to be gay,” he said. “Homeschoolers are the same way.”
Patrick Henry College in particular is known for its outsized political sway and a reputation for activism: a small institution of just 279 students, the college’s student body landed approximately as many internships in the Bush era White House as Georgetown University, a college of nearly 18,000.
So Rubio wasn’t just courting individual votes at Patrick Henry—he was hoping for the butterfly effect that the politically active homeschooling community can activate, driving turnout and exciting volunteers.
The Florida senator paid homage to the school’s reputation for political involvement by visiting Sunday afternoon, before a cheering crowd that numbered in the thousands, telling them that he would lead a federal government that wouldn’t interfere with homeschooling.
Nearly 80 percent of the students at the college have been homeschooled at one time or another, Patrick Henry College president Jack Haye told The Daily Beast.
“As far as having a concentration of students who have been homeschooled at some point, Patrick Henry is the place,” he said.
Other candidates—like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz—have courted the home school community in other states, none of the other candidates reached out to do a rally at Patrick Henry College.
And while there is a 25-student strong ‘Students for Rubio’ club, there is no equivalent group for Republican contenders Cruz or Donald Trump.
The outreach—or relative lack thereof—could have a significant impact on Tuesday, when the Virginia primaries are held, as polls show a tight race between Cruz and Rubio for second place in the state.
While there is an upside to speaking at Patrick Henry College, there are also risks—while the homeschooling community is small, it isn’t monolithic. Signs lining the highway leading up to the school urged voters to go online and read about Rubio’s ties to the “gay lobby.” And protesters behind the podium interrupted his speech Sunday with chants that he was an “empty suit.”
The attacks left Rubio unfazed—interrupted by those protesters, Rubio held his cool, telling the crowd that his suit “wasn’t made in China. It’s not a Trump suit” (Rubio’s supporters didn’t keep their cool—they tore up the demonstrators’ signs and tossed their prop suit jacket down from the bleachers).
Instead, Rubio continued his offensive on Trump, the frontrunner in the Republican primary. The Florida Republican said he decided, at last week’s GOP debate, to finally “unmask the true nature” of the billionaire businessman.
Rubio hit the GOP frontrunner for his health care plan being no more than eliminating “lines around the states,” hiring foreign workers to build Trump Towers, for trying to “open up” libel laws to more easily sue his critics, and on the fraud of Trump University.
“The party of Reagan… is on the verge of potentially nominating a con artist,” Rubio told the assembled crowd.
Rubio said that he was fighting for the “millions of people who would never be rich,” but were working hard nonetheless to “achieve happiness”—such as teachers and police officers.
Ultimately, Rubio urged the thousands present to bring their loved ones to the polls on Tuesday, where a series of primaries and caucuses will be held, representing the largest number of delegates up for grabs in a single day during the GOP nominating process.
“Friends,” he said, “do not let friends vote for con artists.”