At the end of his immigration speech Wednesday, Donald Trump stepped away from the podium to make way for people he called "angel moms."
A line of bereaved parents and relatives, their shirts plastered with the faces of lost loved ones, lined up behind him. Trump stood aside as one by one the parents — "angel moms" — shared stories of losing a son or daughter to an "illegal alien."
"My son Ronald da Silva was murdered April 27, 2002, by an illegal alien who had been previously deported," one "angel mom," herself an immigrant, said. "And what makes me so outraged is that we came here legally. Thank you, Mr. Trump. I totally support you. You have my vote."
"My cousin Rebecca Ann Johnston — known as Becky — was murdered on January the 1st, 1989, in north Little Rock, Arkansas," another woman said. "If you don't vote Trump, we won't have a country. Trump all the way."
Trump hugged the mothers and shook hands with the fathers.
"These are amazing people. And I'm not asking for their endorsement. Believe me. That is tough stuff. Incredible people," Trump said. "Now is the time for all of us as one country — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative — to band together to deliver justice and safety and security for all Americans. Let's fix this horrible, horrible problem. It can be fixed quickly."
By bringing these people up on stage, Trump's messaging was clear: Look at all the Americans undocumented immigrants have hurt, he was saying, look at what "illegal aliens" have taken away. Be afraid of the danger these immigrants pose to your community and to your children.
But who are the "angel moms"? It seemed they went beyond generic subgroups of moms often deployed in presidential campaigns like "soccer moms" and "Walmart moms" — typically used as political shorthand for figuring out if "white women are going to fall out in a different way this election," Debbie Walsh, director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, tells me.
Were these "angel moms" a specific, organized support group? Were they part of the Trump campaign? Or were they something else entirely?
It turns out they are not a group within themselves, even though their name overlaps with a group established more than a decade ago. Instead, they are part of a larger immigration-skeptic nonprofit, and one that is crucial to Trump’s us-against-them message on immigration. And they may be a not-so-subtle play at trying to broaden his appeal with women voters.
Who are "angel moms"?
A quick Google search will land you on AngelMoms.com, the website of an organization founded in 2000 as support group for mothers who have lost their children to any cause. It’s an unassuming website, with a graphic of a burning candle that looks like it dates back to the group’s founding year. "This candle burns in memory of Capri "Cappy" Walker. Forever in our hearts," the site reads.
But AngelMoms.com has nothing to do with Trump or the speakers featured during his immigration policy speech Wednesday, the group insists.
"We are in no way connected to the women who were shown during the speech with Donald Trump," Judi Walker, the founder of Angel Moms, told me in an email, adding that the organization has been getting a lot of attention since Trump’s speech Wednesday. "It is very upsetting," she said.
Trump’s "angel moms" have a different origin: They are from the Remembrance Project, a Texas-based nonprofit founded in 2009 that "advocates for families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens," according to its website. Its mission is educating "the public of the epidemic of killings across the country, and raising awareness of the effects of illegal immigration."
For the Remembrance Project, and for Trump, "angel moms" is a "term used within the organization" to denote mothers who have lost children to incidents involving undocumented immigrants, Trump’s spokesperson Hope Hicks confirmed in an email.
There are groups in a similar vein to the Remembrance Project across the country. Facebook pages, like "California Victims of Illegal Aliens," dedicated to highlighting stories of Americans who have died due to "illegal aliens and foreign criminals in the U.S., especially those who have been killed by illegals," aggregate news stories and statistics on immigration.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the news stories shared come from Breitbart News, the outlet that delivered Trump his new campaign CEO, Steve Bannon. There’s even a tag on Breitbart that pulls together all "angel moms" stories in one place.
"Angel moms" are core to Trump’s immigration message
Trump has a simple and direct narrative when it comes to immigration: Immigrants disrupt the natural order of a safe and quiet American lifestyle. Framing immigration as an us-against-them debate has worked well for Trump this campaign. It’s a message that has been finely tuned throughout his campaign.
Trump’s message reflects the loud, anxiety-inducing worldview on immigration, committed to making Americans afraid of the dangers immigrants bring to American shores. The stories from the "angel moms" are the first-person accounts of this worldview.
For Trump and Breitbart, immigration is told through a lens of crime. Last week I read Breitbart’s 50 most-recent immigration stories to find their's is a brand of coverage more reminiscent of a police blotter — a perfect representation of Trumpism.
Regardless of the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, the "angel moms" give the real human voices to Trump’s message on immigration — one that is less based in policy and more based in an emotional appeal.
There is a long history of moms in presidential elections. But this year is different.
Trump’s "angel moms" are not the only moms of the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton has her own group of mothers on her side: "Mothers of the Movement."
Clinton’s moms are the "mothers whose children were killed by vigilantes and police and whose deaths have galvanized the contemporary black movement for racial justice," as my colleague Victoria Massie writes. They are the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Hadiya Pendleton, Dontre Hamilton, and Sandra Bland.
As Time’s politics editor Ryan Teague Beckwith points out, almost every recent presidential year has had an important group of moms:
A brief history of U.S. election moms:— Ryan Teague Beckwith (@ryanbeckwith) September 1, 2016
2000: Soccer moms
2004: Security moms
2008: Hockey moms
2012: Walmart moms
2016: Angel moms
There is a simple reason mothers play such a role in presidential campaigns: Based on the past 20 years of polling data, women play an important role in general elections, making up more than 50 percent of the electorate. These labels effectively stratify important groups of female voters.
"They are clearly trying to put a compelling human face on the issue," Center for American Women and Politics’ Walsh said. "It is about pulling on your heartstrings. It is not subtle. I think it is the anguish of the parent. I think it makes real something in some ways that may be more abstract."
And while Clinton might be appealing to different racial demographics of women voters with "Mothers of the Movement," Trump isn’t doing well with women voters at all. And despite bringing on Kellyanne Conway to manage his campaign — the first female campaign manager of a Republican presidential nominee with an established career advising politicians to win female voters — Trump’s numbers with women have more or less been in the basement.
A general election ABC/Washington Post poll from August showed Clinton had a 23-point lead over Trump in women voters. And from exit polling during the primaries, Trump supporters have time and time again proven to be predominantly white and predominantly male. Trump only wins 72 percent of Republican women, according to the New York Times (Romney won 93 percent of Republican women in 2012).
Trump's best-case scenario means raising his support among male voters to the highest of any candidate in the past three decades and bringing Clinton's support among women to the lowest of any candidate in the past three decades — and that still doesn't quite make the cut, Dante Chinni wrote for NBC:
Even if Trump can do all of that - get his advantage with men up to Bush's 11-point edge and get Clinton's edge with women down to just 11 points - he still would come up short in the popular vote because of the first part of the equation: women produce more votes. It would be very close though, a margin of just less than a percentage point, maybe close enough to put the all-important Electoral College tally in play.
And Trump’s "angel moms" aren’t really speaking to the the female voters he desperately needs.
"What has been so fascinating about this campaign is he doesn’t seem to be speaking beyond that 40 percent of the Republicans from the primary," Walsh said. "His message last night isn’t going to gain him any ground with women voters. It was pretty hard-line."