It was still happy hour when I showed up at the Village Pourhouse—a sports bar on Third Avenue known primarily as a "sports bar on Third Avenue"—on Thursday night in New York City. There seemed to be some sort of wing-and-pitcher deal going on, so it was hard to discern at first who was just starting the weekend early and who was here to watch the first Republican presidential debate unfold across the bar's seven flat screens, like a UFC fight gone terribly wrong.
I meandered my way to the back of the bar, as the channels shifted from baseball to Bill O'Reilly.I spotted a gaggle of young professionals around a lock box covered in 2016 campaign stickers, and knew I'd found the habitat of a species rare to Manhattan: Homo Republicanus.
The New York Young Republicans are one of, if not the, oldest Young Republican groups in the country—which seems strange, given how unabashedly socialist the city has become, until you remember New York is home to people like Rudy Giuliani, Peter King, David Koch—and of course, The Donald. Which means that on Thursday, the city was also home turf for the Republican presidential frontrunner. And the Village Pourhouse was packed.
I was on a hunt for young Trump supporters, and it looked like I had found their tribe. And I was about to learn that I was wrong to have ever thought it'd be hard to track them down. "He's refreshing," said Nick, a young Trump fan who works at the Treasury Department and had just moved back to New York City from Buffalo. "He says what he wants, and I love that."
As the room filled with people, I got a beer and made my way over to the lockbox that was being used to collect results for a straw poll the Young Republicans were conducting before the debate. I asked who the fan favorite was.
"The way we work, we don't make a decision as a club until after the primaries are over," said Alan Hendrick, the event organizer. "To us, there's no clear frontrunner, which is why so many candidates have jumped in. And everyone in the club has their own camps. But we're here to get answers."
Hendrick, 28, was a Rand Paul supporter, having worked on Paul's father's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Hendrick's second choice, though, was Trump—"just to throw a wrench into everything," he said, and also, because "I work in real estate." But he added that he also wanted to hear from the other candidates. "We're used to Trump attacks, so they don't surprise us," Hendrick told me. "I'm just hoping he doesn't drone everyone else out."
As the cameras centered in on the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio,R. D. Ferman, one of the club members, jumped on top of a chair, and yelled out, "See, there are Republicans in New York City!"
Someone turned up the volume. I pulled up a chair next to another reporter, and chose a TV to stare at for two hours. A guy next to me commented that Bret Baier looked like an Oompa Loompa—which seemed like a fair statement—and then the arena show began.
There was some light applause as the debate moderators started introducing the candidates—but at the mention of "Businessman Donald J. Trump," the Young Republicans went wild.The crowd seemed like they were gearing up for a sports game, the reactions better suited for a WWE wrestling match than an election debate. But in many ways, that's what politics is in 2015—an event most appropriately watched in a bar, something you need todrinkto watch.
When Trump told Megyn Kelly he wouldn't apologize for calling women "fat" and "slobs," the crowd laughed and cheered. His pledge to run a third party candidacy was met with an equal share of cheers and boos, but both had an addictive tone. The crowd wanted more.
The segment on immigration caused another, bigger uproar. If Trump is hitting a nerve, it is one that likes to chant "Build the wall!" while beer splashes everywhere. The crowd applauded as Trump bragged that "if it weren't for me, you wouldn't even be talking about immigration," and fell silent when debate moderator Chris Wallace asked the real-estate mogul to share evidence that the Mexican government was encouraging immigrants to hop the fences. Even when Trump couldn't produce a coherent answer, the crowd cheered him on. They loved the guy. Janelle, a 25-year-old woman seated next to me, called Donald "revolutionary" and told me she "respected the shit out of him."
As the night progressed, the room grew more inebriated, and more beers meant more senseless cheers. One group saluted their drinks to any candidate who swore to rip up the Iran deal "on Day One." Another gaggle took shots at any mention of Benghazi, and ordered another round to salute Trump's four bankruptcies. And virtually everyone responded to an attack on Hillary with an imaginative chorus of 'Fuck Hillarys!' It had become a sweaty frat party, but then again so had the debate.
Unable to move through the crowd much, I spent most of the debate talking to Janelle and her friends. They were all resounding Trump supporters, and rolled their eyes when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker talked about abortion. When former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee kept talking about abortion, Janelle commented, "Sorry, we're not in the B.C. times."
Her friend had more choice words for Chris Christie: "I don't trust fat people," she remarked, "especially when they're from New Jersey." Virtually everyone around me jeered when the New Jersey Governor went after Paul for trying to repeal the Patriot Act.
Whether it was because these were New York Young Republicans, or because they were the type of New York Young Republicans who opt to spend an evening crushed up against other sweaty young Republican bodies, most of the people I met seemed to be socially liberal, shaking their heads when the debate topic turned to defunding Planned Parenthood, and cheering when Ohio Governor John Kasich said he would love a gay son or daughter unconditionally. Perhaps more surprisingly, the crowd actually laughed when a Facebook user asked the candidates to basically say why they loved God.
No one cheered much for Jeb Bush, who will presumably recapture his place at the top of the polls whenever Trump fever breaks. Of course, this isn't the constituency he, or the Republican Party for that matter, is looking to sway. In a deep blue state, the New York Young Republicans will become electorally irrelevant come November 2016. But that inevitability wasn't in the air at the Village Pourhouse. Just a lot of B.O. and AXE body spray.
As the debate wound down, the initial energy quickly deflating, I came across a guy named Adam, who identified himself as a Democrat and said he had come down from his apartment to watch the debate. Adam told me he was fairly confident that many of the people at the bar were "Democrats trolling Republicans." And maybe he was right: Those "It's the Donaldddddddd" chants from the guy holding a pitcher for three and a half hours didn't seem real.
When I approached Jen Saunders, a spokesperson for the Young Republicans, after the debate, she seemed exhausted. She's a supporter of former New York Governor George Pataki, who hadn't made it on to the main stage Thursday, and was instead relegated to the 5 pm "kiddie table" debate. Saunders told me she couldn't stand the "circus of it all," but that she'd liked Christie and Paul's head-to-head over government surveillance, as well as Trump's comments about corruption in politics. "These are conversations the party needs to have," she said.
But this was the first of at least nine debates—just one match for the wrestling championship. "If I believed in God," Jen added, with a tired sigh, "I'd say, 'God help us all.'"
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