Fact Check

Fact Checker: Trump says Family Leader event had lackluster turnout since he wasn't there

First snowstorm of the year slammed Iowa same night as Family Leader's Presidential Family Forum

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at West High School in Sioux City, Iowa, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at West High School in Sioux City, Iowa, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Introduction

“It’s too bad so few people showed up to @bobvanderplaats Family Leader dinner. Next year I’ll try & be there- and they’ll have a huge crowd!”

Source of claim: The Twitter handle — @realDonaldTrump — of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump on Nov. 22.

Analysis

Trump was suggesting the Presidential Family Forum, an event last month featuring seven GOP presidential candidates put on by Bob Vander Plaats’ organization, the Family Leader, had low attendance because Trump didn’t participate.

Fact Checker will examine whether “few people showed up” to the Family Forum.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to the Fact Checker to back up his claim.

The Family Leader, a socially conservative advocacy group, and the former Iowa gubernatorial candidate Vander Plaats are influential in the caucuses. Vander Plaats has been called a “kingmaker” and the political news website The Hill called his endorsement one of the 10 most coveted for GOP presidential candidates.

The Family Forum, which began in 2011 to vet candidates’ religious credentials, has become a rite of passage for candidates seeking the faith vote and the blessing of Vander Plaats and his group.

All major GOP candidates were invited to participate, but Trump declined to do so.

A Trump campaign spokesman told National Public Radio he had a conflicting event in South Carolina, but Vander Plaats said Trump told him he wouldn’t attend unless he had a guaranteed endorsement.

“He would like for me to guarantee my endorsement to go to him, and obviously he would show up,” Vander Plaats was quoted by NPR. “ ... I appreciate that about him, of saying, ‘I’m gonna go to another event if I can’t guarantee your endorsement.’”

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Candidates Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Carly Fiorina attended the forum the evening of Nov. 20 in the grand ballroom of the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines.

The room has a capacity of 3,110 seats when arranged for theater seating, according to the Iowa Events Center website.

Family Leader spokesman Drew Zahn said given the “preferred arrangement,” the maximum capacity was 2,488, and the group sold 1,793 tickets ranging in cost from $15 to $40. It set 1,700 seats, and 1,100 ticket buyers attended, he said. Between attendees, Family Leader staff, candidate staff, volunteers and members of the media the estimated crowd was about 1,500, Zahn said.

That night brought Iowa’s first snowstorm of the year, and much of the state was under a hazardous weather advisory and a winter storm warning, including the conservative stronghold of Northwest Iowa. The Iowa Department of Transportation and the National Weather Service advised Iowans not to travel.

“With the winter storm descending, we knew large contingents would not be able to attend, especially our many supporters in Northwest Iowa, where some places reported over a foot of snow,” Zahn said in an email.

The 2015 event was much smaller than the 2011 forum, which featured Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The 2011 forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines drew 3,000 people out of a 3,500 capacity, Zahn said.

Given the larger slate of candidates this year, and another faith-based event — Freedom 2015 National Religious Liberties Conference in Des Moines — earlier in November, the Family Leader intentionally planned a smaller affair, Zahn said.

“In light of the increased competition for attendees’ time, we purposefully chose a smaller venue than in 2011,” he said. Zahn said had Trump participated, he likely would have drawn some of his supporters, increasing attendance, but given the severity of the storm, they were pleased with the turnout.

Conclusion

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Trump’s participation in the Family Leader’s Presidential Family Forum likely would have attracted additional people — Trump drew large crowds of 1,000, 2,400, and 4,000 at October events in Iowa, according to reports — but the storm would have challenged his supporters as much as those of others.

Campaign events around Iowa commonly draw in the dozens or hundreds, so the forum’s crowd of more than 1,000 is bigger than most. While the forum was smaller than planned — drawing less than half capacity for the booking — it is misleading to call 1,100 attendees and 1,793 tickets sold “so few.”

We give Trump a D.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by B.A. Morelli.

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