Thousands are expected to fill First Niagara Center on Monday to hear Donald Trump.
In the crowd will be dozens who have already been on buses for him.
They traveled months ago to places in New Hampshire, Ohio and South Carolina – battleground primary states – and went door-to-door or made phone calls to drum up support for Trump.
Some were lifelong Republicans. Some had just registered for the party. Others had been Democrats all their lives.
And the bus riders couldn’t be pigeonholed by gender or class, either.
“There was one who collected bottles and cans, and another guy who was a millionaire,” said organizer Jul Thompson.
How those who boarded buses for Trump view him and the political system helps explain why the real estate developer and reality-television star will take the stage on Monday as the Republican front-runner. And they’re not surprised he’s the candidate with a big lead heading into New York’s Republican primary the next day.
These grassroots volunteers hail Trump as an anti-politician who’s paying for his own campaign. Many believe the country’s headed in the wrong direction and that politicians benefit too much from what the Trump supporters consider a corrupt political system to want to fix it from the inside.
But Trump supporters defy easy labels – and that works just fine for them.
Thompson, the co-founder of TEA New York who led the bus trips, estimated that at least half of the volunteers who boarded the first bus to New Hampshire on Feb. 9 weren’t even Republicans. They were registered Independence, Conservative and Democratic party members. A few weren’t even registered to vote.
“The vast majority have never been involved in politics before,” she said.
Carl Paladino and Michael Caputo, who helped organize the New York for Trump campaign, solicited volunteers through emails and social media, collecting the names of more than 300 people from various parts of the state willing to volunteer.
They included a retired union trainer, a North Tonawanda family, an insurance agent, and an aspiring politician – each offering insight into how so many people with different backgrounds have come together in support of the same man.
“I’ve never cried for a candidate in my life until I saw Donald Trump in South Carolina,” said Gary Pelletier, 61, a retired union training coordinator and lifelong Democrat until recently.
Clarence resident Kim Worling woke up before dawn and boarded the volunteer bus to New Hampshire at 5:30 a.m.
“I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” the insurance agent recalled.
But with her husband’s encouragement, she packed her bags and was pleasantly surprised by the good-natured and diverse makeup of the other riders, from political veterans to first-time joiners like herself.
A lifelong Republican, Worling said she spent many days praying over God’s plans for Trump. Though exasperated by some Trump comments that she wouldn’t want her children hearing, she said she’s placing her faith in Trump. He comes across to her as a man of action with a track record of personal accomplishment.
“I’ve gotten real tired of the chit chatters,” she said. “Everybody’s got an opinion when it comes to the political spectrum. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. When are we going to shut up and do something?”
Leadership, it turns out, outranks other traits that likely Republican primary voters in New York want in a president, according to a CBS News Battleground Tracker poll released last week.
Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed picked “the strongest leader” as the trait they most want in president, compared to 33 percent who picked “the most likely to shake up the political system” and 15 percent who wanted “the most experienced on policy issues.” Only 13 percent picked “the most consistent conservative,” according to the poll.
For the Marranca family of North Tonawanda, helping the Trump campaign has become a family affair, much to the father’s surprise.
His oldest son, who turned 18 in February, has grown so excited about Trump’s run for president that his enthusiasm is spreading in the family.
Joe Marranca Jr. and Joe Marranca III took trips New Hampshire and Ohio, knocking on doors and making calls.
None of the family members is a Republican. They’re registered with the Independence and Conservative parties. So they’re unable to vote in the primary – something the son didn’t realize when he registered. But that hasn’t stopped them from doing their part to help Trump clinch New York’s primary.
The two have always been interested in history and politics. But the mother in the family, Sherri, took almost no interest in politics until Trump got in the race.
Fast forward to last week when former President Bill Clinton held a campaign event in support of Hillary Clinton in Cheektowaga. Sherri Marranca was outside with protesters, waving a handmade sign for Trump to passing motorists.
“He feels real to me,” she said.
Local Trump volunteers offer similar reasons for supporting Trump. But they’re different in many other ways.
Pelletier, for instance, had been a Democrat all his life until he boarded the bus to help Trump win the New Hampshire primary.
“When I was younger, I would just put my finger on the Democratic lever and roll it right across,” he said.
The Cheektowaga resident long believed that Democrats saved jobs.
Pelletier still doesn’t identify with Ronald Reagan Republicans.
But over the last decade, the retired union training coordinator for the Dunlop Tire plant stopped reflexively pulling the Democratic lever.
He believes Democrats have lost their way. Pelletier said he’s been particularly disappointed in President Obama. Pelletier blames the president for the country’s racial strife. And he described Obama as “a Muslim trying to kill this country,” even though the president is a Christian.
After the New Hampshire bus trip, Pelletier registered as a Republican. It’s not that he suddenly supports all elements of the Republican platform. He just admires Trump. Like other Trump supporters, Pelletier believes America needs a man like Trump.
Each time he went to other states to campaign door-to-door and do phone bank work for Trump, Pelletier returned with lawn signs and bumper stickers to pass out to people he knows locally – many of them Democrats.
“They’re sort of like me,” he said. “People aren’t stupid. People can see our country is spiraling down.”
Trump supporters believe the answer to solving problems facing the country is someone who is not a groomed product of the political system. They appreciate that Trump is not politically correct. He’s not beholden to special interests or their money.
Most New York Republicans surveyed by the CBS News poll, 71 percent, picked Trump as the candidate who would do best on changing the political system, compared to 20 percent for Cruz and 9 percent for Kasich.
Though Trump may have previously been a Democrat and supported Democratic causes, candidates and ideals, local Trump supporters tend to regard him more as an independent player who shouldn’t be expected to follow all of the rules of an American political party system that has been a disappointment to them.
The CBS News poll found that eight of every 10 likely Republican primary voters in New York felt Trump sometimes made statements that were unfair or went too far. Two-thirds of those polled thought the recent discussions of candidates’ wives were inappropriate in a presidential campaign.
supporters say they can overlook the candidate’s sometimes rude remarks and vague solutions because they believe Trump doesn’t spend hours getting coached by political insiders about exactly what to say and how to say it.
That’s how Trump managed to sway Patrick Delaney, a Cheektowaga resident and conservative Republican who once thought he would vote for Ted Cruz. Instead, Delaney traveled to New Hampshire and trudged through knee-high snow to campaign for Trump.
“The pundits say he always says what the people want to hear, but that’s because he really has a grasp on what the problems of the country are,” Delaney said. “In the beginning, he may not have had specifics for his plans, but he had the answers.”
Delaney didn’t initially consider Trump a real Republican.
But Delaney’s respect for Trump deepened the more he heard him talk and the more he saw political insiders and the media treat him as a joke. Delaney said he was “blown away” when Trump talked about building a wall along the Mexico border and making Mexico pay for it. He also liked Trump’s positions against free-trade agreements.
No other candidates talked that way, he said.
Delaney grew up in a devoutly Catholic and conservative family. His grandmother was a member of the Right to Life Party. The 26-year-old, no stranger to political involvement, previously worked on Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Now he’s running for a seat on the Cheektowaga Town Board. Delaney organized two anti-Clinton rallies last week.
He recalls his trip to New Hampshire, where registered voters of any political party could vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries. He remembers a woman living in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Pelham, N.H., who watched him struggle through the snow on her long suburban driveway.
“Just because you made the trip all the way up here in your dress shoes, I’m going to vote for Trump,” she told him as he reached her door.
Now Delaney and other volunteers are helping the Trump campaign from the candidate’s local headquarters at Paladino’s Ellicott Square, doing their part to strengthen Trump’s support locally.
They’re brimming with optimism.
“Not only do you know that you’re doing something right,” Delaney said, “you know you’ve got a phenomenon on your hands.”