PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Mike Pence definitely chose the wrong place to give a stump speech.
Trump’s VP nominee railed against Hillary Clinton in Northern Virginia on Saturday afternoon—but he chose to do it at an evangelical Christian college with a history of anti-Trump sentiment. Students protested outside, while inside students stood in silent protest until they were ejected mid-speech.
The protests and poor attendance at the speech at Patrick Henry College illustrate the challenges that Trump has appealing to evangelical Christians, especially younger ones, who are turned off by his tone, his campaign ideas and his personal history—and are not at all assauged by his choice of Pence for his running mate.
“The PHC student body as a whole is very anti-Trump. A lot of them say, ‘I don’t like him but I’m going to turn up my nose and vote for him because I like Hillary even less.’ But overall there is a severe disgust with Trump,” said Sebastian Lopez, a junior studying political theory at the school who was protesting the speech, holding a sign for hours outside in the blazing mid-day sun.
“I don’t think that Mike Pence is a bad person, but I think he has made an alliance with someone who is completely unacceptable from a libertarian, conservative or progressive standpoint,” added Christian McGuire, a junior at Patrick Henry College studying American politics who was also demonstrating against Pence.
McGuire estimated 75 percent of the student body opposed Trump.
Pence’s visit is not the first misstep by the Trump campaign in Virginia. Donald Trump flubbed his speech in Northern Virginia earlier this month when he lectured the affluent locals in the audience as if they were the Rust Belt—“You’re doing lousy over here,” he remarked—and then listed factory closures in far-flung areas of the state that were hours away, as well as a plant that closed in North Carolina.
Patrick Henry College is located in Loudoun County, the affluent swing district an hour from Washington, D.C., that voted for Bush twice, and then Obama twice. It’s as close to a must-win county as it gets.
So it fell to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence—again—to sweep up after his boss’s mistakes.
“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican—in that order,” said Pence, playing to the audience.
But locals weren’t interested in hearing what he had to say. When Marco Rubio visited in February during the Republican primaries, students and local residents crammed into the room, filling the bleachers, the gymnasium floor and the balconies above to get a glimpse of the presidential candidate. The road outside the college was jam-packed. Parking was a nightmare.
An enthusiastic Students for Rubio group existed during the primaries. To this day there is no pro-Trump group on campus.
“There are certainly students who support Trump, though most are not enthusiastic. He was rarely the first choice in such a crowded primary field,” said Tim Kocher, a spokesman for the Patrick Henry College Republicans. “I believe Trump has a solid base of support around 15-20%, but many students simply have not made up their minds as far as the presidential race goes.”
When Pence visited Saturday, the room was half-empty—a whole set of retractable bleachers sat empty and discarded near the stage; no admiring crowds leaned over the balcony to get a better look at the politician; parking was a breeze. This lackluster turnout took place at a school which in fall 2015 registered just 294 students, yet had about as many White House interns during the Bush administration as Georgetown University, with its nearly 18,000 students.
“I’m a B-list Republican celebrity,” Pence said self-deprecatingly, as he thanked attendees for showing up on a beautiful, cloudless Saturday afternoon. It was funny because it was kind of sad, and it was sad because it was kind of true.
Pence also spoke as if he did not quite understand whose ticket he was on. “We believe in free trade,” he said, as if Trump had not run a campaign slamming international trade. The governor also slammed Hillary Clinton’s plan to tax the rich, as if the Republican nominee had not taken aim at Wall Street during his populist run for the White House. Americans are “tired of politicians who divide our country to unite their support,” he said, as if Trump had not run a campaign that regularly disparaged Muslims, foreigners and women.
As if to bolster this point, a group of protesters critical of Trump’s rhetoric on Islam revealed their T-shirts during Pence’s speech, engaging in a silent protest of the Republican ticket as they were slowly escorted out.
Even the students who supported the Trump-Pence ticket seemed to be doing so with an air of resignation, buoyed only by the threat they believe Hillary Clinton poses to the country.
Sarah Roberts, a student at the college who attended the speech, told The Daily Beast, “I haven’t done the research to be, like, ‘Woo-hoo,’ but he’s better than the alternative.”
“Our options are a little limited, so we’re going to have to choose between worse and worse,” said another student carrying a Trump-Pence sign. “[It’s a] very conservative school, one of the most conservative schools in the nation… a lot of people don’t really believe he’s very conservative.”
Meanwhile, outside Patrick Henry College, nearly 20 students and alumni from the predominantly conservative school demonstrated against Pence and Trump, to make the point that the Christian college did not support the Republican ticket.
“I don’t want my school, and therefore my name, associated with [Trump],” said Erin Lester, an alumni of the school. “It’s known for being a conservative school… and I don’t want people to assume that because it’s a conservative school, that we’re Trump's dupes, basically.”
The protests for the swing area of Loudoun County continued out in the street outside Patrick Henry College’s main entrance, where students held signs reading “PHC is Not Trump Country,” “Immigrants Make America Great” and “For Christ and Liberty, Not Bigotry And Idiocy.”
Some locals passed, honking in support. Eventually, a car drove by, and its angry occupant flipped the bird, yelling “TRUMP!”
“God bless you!” the student protesters shouted back.