BUFFALO, N.Y. — Republican front-runner Donald Trump had one last stop to make on the eve of the crucial New York presidential primary.
“Tomorrow, you’re going to go out and vote! And you’re going to make sure all your friends are going to go out and vote,” Trump told a crowd in Buffalo on Monday night. “You’re going to say, ‘That’s the greatest single vote I’ve ever cast.’”
The Manhattan businessman was rallying his troops in the fairly packed arena, which seats 18,000. Tuesday’s primary is critical for the GOP front-runner, who recently lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in Wisconsin, and has failed to garner delegates in some recent state conventions.
The billionaire’s decision to hold his last major rally before the primary in Buffalo was not surprising. Two of his three state honorary campaign co-chairs are from western New York, including Rep. Chris Collins, the first congressman to endorse Trump. And 1.7 million of the state’s 2.9 million registered Republicans reside in the 16 upstate congressional districts.
In 2014, Trump supporters showed early excitement in the Rust Belt city when the businessman was weighing a gubernatorial run. He headlined an Erie County GOP fundraiser and drew a record crowd of 600.
“I could have sold another 500 tickets,” said the county’s Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy. “The enthusiasm was off the charts.”
Langworthy explained that Trump’s frank style, ability to connect with frustrated voters and pledge to bolster American jobs through better trade deals hits home in western New York.
Resonating in the Rust Belt “In Buffalo, we have to talk jobs,” Trump said Monday night, before delving into American companies moving overseas.
“He’s finally speaking up for the blue-collar man,” said Chris Bell, 46. “The job market, it’s atrocious.”
Bell is a factory worker in Wyoming County, a rural area southeast of Buffalo. Waiting to get into the arena, he said two major factories had closed in the area, and he believes Trump’s business experience qualifies him to bring jobs back to the region.
“There are several areas of the country that have done well under free trade,” said Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who is a political science professor at Canisius College. “Western New York is not one of them.”
Since its peak in 1950, Buffalo has lost more than half of its population due to a decline in manufacturing jobs. Factories shut down all over the city, and younger workers left town to find jobs elsewhere.
Still, it’s the second largest city in New York with a population of about 260,000. In recent years, Buffalo has started to turn around. Empty grain silos have become art and theater installations, and some abandoned factories were transformed into loft apartments.
Trump’s rally was near Canalside, not far from the terminus of the Erie Canal. A few years ago, the area was barren. Today, it’s a developed harbor with green space, walkways and entertainment areas. But scars remain after decades of decline.
“There’s still a terrible taste around here for free trade,” said Hardwick. Trump said Monday that he supports free trade, but leaders need to make smarter, tougher deals.
“He’s going to bring American industry back,” said Tanner Stampson, 18, of Falconer, N.Y., in the state’s southern tier. Stampson, a senior in high school, is enlisting in the Army after he graduates. He was sporting a green camouflage hat bearing Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is brand of campaigning also seems to resonate in western New York. Republicans and Democrats described the area’s residents as hard working and fiercely loyal — the type of people who go to work after digging through a couple feet of snow and cheer on the hometown football team, the Buffalo Bills, despite heartbreaking losses.
The crowd roared when Bills head coach Rex Ryan, wearing a Trump campaign sticker, introduced the candidate at the rally.
The Paladino factor Trump’s campaign was also bolstered by a powerful ally: Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino . The developer and school board member was an early backer for Trump’s campaign.
Western New Yorkers, Paladino said in an interview, are ready for Trump. “They are the people that have been sitting back and festering with this anger over the illegitimacy of their governments on every level,” he said.
Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when he garnered support for being “mad as hell,” laid the groundwork for Trump’s campaign.
Hardwick cited Paladino’s influence in western New York as one of the reason’s why GOP Ohio Gov. John Kasich did not make an appearance in Buffalo.
Cruz swung through the city, taping an MSNBC town hall at the University at Buffalo. Supporters who attended Cruz’s rally an hour away in Rochester said the Texas senator was the only true conservative candidate with substance.
Trump’s rally Monday brought the usual mix of showmanship and protest: Six people were arrested and 21 were ejected from the rally, several of them dragged off just before the speeches began.
Trump is poised to win his home state on Tuesday, with recent polls showing him more than 20 points ahead of Cruz and Kasich. Both Paladino and Collins have predicted Trump will win all of the state’s 95 delegates, meaning he will garner more than 50 percent of the vote in each of the state’s 27 congressional districts.
His is the right message at the right time, supporters say.
“I like what he said about making our country great again. It sounds so trite but he’s right,” said Barbara Fitzpatrick, 6o, while standing in her vintage store in nearby Clarence, N.Y. “He’s real.”