“Strategy is everything,” Tana Goertz, the woman in charge of the contest, tells her 22 contestants. “We’re going to start big with your task. You have 15 minutes. GO!”
The tableau is so familiar that it’s easy to forget why people are gathering here in the parking lot of a mall in West Des Moines, dashing inside to collect signatures from as many strangers as possible. The prize is an invitation to stay in the game until the next round and a photo op with the big shot they all want to work for. Nobody’s filming the action and, strictly speaking, this isn’t reality TV but a presidential campaign. Except that the candidate is Donald Trump—so it’s both. Those signatures? They don’t have a purpose other than to bolster a campaign database. And that slot the contestants are battling for? A position as one of the delegates who will get to carry the Trump banner in Iowa’s caucuses in February.
That Trump’s campaign is finding its Iowa delegates via staged, game-show-style events might seem odd. But it begins to make sense when you consider the extent to which Trump’s appeal as a candidate is built on his starring role on The Apprentice—a prime-time network show that, it must be noted, has aired for 14 seasons with anywhere from about 5 million to 20 million viewers. Although he’s no longer the host of the program (that honor now belongs to Arnold Schwarzenegger), The Apprentice continues to function as a piece of heavy and essential campaign machinery, arguably providing Trump’s most important edge. Other campaigns struggle with the painstaking and expensive organizational hurdles of identifying potential voters by shared values, building name recognition through ads and public appearances (and, if they’re lucky, press attention), working to alchemically combine message and personality to attract a fickle constituency who just might leave if the candidate says the wrong thing. Meanwhile, The Apprentice’s viewership gave Trump a giant base of committed, non-ideological enthusiasts.
And consider that the idea of procuring caucus delegates through Apprentice-like competitive “tasks” came from Goertz, 48, the Trump campaign’s Iowa co-chair and a woman who rarely fails to cite having been a contestant on The Apprentice as the defining experience of her professional life. In 2005 (Season 3 to the faithful) she lasted until the penultimate episode and was named runner-up. That year, the show pitted a team whose members had college degrees against people who didn’t, the battle of school smarts vs. street smarts. Goertz, a pillar of the self-made squad—she’d spent 10 years going door to door in Iowa as a Mary Kay saleswoman—returned from her near-win to cobble together a living doing gigs in entrepreneurial self-branding. “I do motivational speaking, life coaching, product endorsements,” she says. “The best part of my career? I’ve never had a boss. I learned that from Trump.”
She was paid to address an audience of 5,000 for a convention of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. She had a short-term deal as spokeswoman, with her picture on the packaging, for the BeDazzler—a home-crafts tool for affixing rhinestones. And a minor league hockey team in Des Moines hired her “to put asses in seats,” which she accomplished through a series of contest-like promotions. “People come to me to put their business on steroids, to give them what made me successful, which is the TV show and using the competition style,” she says. “It brings out superstars. It attracts people who are driven and want to kick ass.”
Goertz, a mother of two, is that person. She has sculpted features, an aerobicized physique, and a vocal delivery that sounds as if it were created in a laboratory specifically for infomercials. When she calls supporters on the phone, they tend to mistake her for a recorded announcement that they’ve won something.
At the Jordan Creek mall, Gina McClelland, a freckled, middle-aged woman in jeans and running shoes, is declared the winner for having obtained seven names (and, probably more important—the rules were a bit vague—for being the first to make it back outside to the Trump bus that serves as home base). Goertz stands on a Pelican cooler to address the crowd of about 40 volunteers and contestants.
“I heard a lot of you say you didn’t have a watch, but as an apprentice, you have to take that into account,” she says, before heaping congratulations on McClelland. “This is a woman who wasn’t going to come to this event because she didn’t believe in herself, because she didn’t think her job was glamorous enough.”
“I didn’t feel like one of the pretty people,” McClelland says. “I’m just a fat old truck driver, but I feel like Cinderella at the ball.” She beams and does a little shimmy with her hips, adding that as a trucker, “I’m not used to sprinting.” She learned about the event on Goertz’s Facebook page—the two hadn’t met—but when she wrote to express reluctance, “Tana told me, ‘Mr. Trump is who you want there for you. We’re all insiders now, and we’ll see each other again.’ ”
“When I heard you say that, I was about to go to my Tana Therapy place,” Goertz says. “You are beautiful, Gina.” She asks one of Trump’s Iowa advisers to retrieve a T-shirt from the bus.
“I will knock on a thousand doors,” McClelland says, adding that her strategy for obtaining signatures was simple: She only went to Scheels sporting goods. “They sell guns.”
In light of Trump’s candidacy, The Apprentice—and The Celebrity Apprentice, its later iteration starring famous contestants—can be viewed as an extensive Trump campaign ad, or as Goertz might say, an infomercial on steroids. Polls suggest that Apprentice viewers are Trump’s base. David Axelrod wrote on CNN’s website that Trump’s poll numbers just after the second Republican debate were almost twice as high among people who watched the show than those who didn’t. Among those who didn’t, he still led the pack, though by only a single percentage point.
NBC introduced The Apprentice in early 2004, touting the premise as “the ultimate job interview” and offering 16 young and mostly unpolished men and women the chance to land a $250,000 job “running” a Trump building in Chicago. The candidates were split into two single-sex teams and all shared a giant apartment in New York’s Trump Tower. The weekly-elimination format had them competing at selling lemonade on sidewalks, constructing ad campaigns for a private jet company, and finding somebody to rent a Trump penthouse for no less than $20,000 a night (Trump’s properties and corporate sponsors were heavily featured). Instead of employment with Trump, winners on the Celebrity Apprentice score donations to favorite charities. In July, NBC severed ties to Trump shortly after he announced he’d be running for president and disparaged Mexican immigrants to the U.S.
As one of Trump’s three co-chairs in Iowa—a fundraising position on most campaigns—Goertz has the central function of connecting Trump, the Apprentice character, to voters. “Who he is came through on the show: a boss. And through me, that’s how people in Iowa will see him,” she says.
Upon hiring her, Chuck Laudner, Trump’s Iowa campaign director, said, “Tana, you’re the only one who actually knows him,” Goertz recalls.
“That’s true,” she adds. “I can put the human qualities to the star. I’m the only one who has sat next to his wife at dinner. I’m the only one that’s peed in his blue onyx toilet.”
Most of the people who arrive at the Sept. 7 event in West Des Moines are Apprentice fans, and lots of them know Goertz from her appearance on the show as well. There are jokes about firing Obama and several people who say they haven’t voted in decades but are going to vote for Trump in February.
“Something he was saying just resonated,” McClelland says. “The GOP establishment is really not speaking to me. I wasn’t going to even caucus this time, until Trump came along. I probably would’ve voted libertarian. I’m not voting for a Bush again, and I wasn’t going to vote for Hillary. I’d vote for Bill.” She adds, “I liked the season with Bret Michaels.”
Mary Lynn, who began corresponding with Goertz on Facebook after she lost her 35-year-old daughter to cancer in 2013, had admired her on the show almost a decade earlier. Trump was already making himself into her favorite candidate, she says, playing his part reliably. “I’ve had some issues with medical services available and what’s available to people who aren’t legal—seeing illegals coming into the hospital with purses from Dooney & Bourke, while we’re just trying to feed the grandkids,” she says. “And that’s why I like him.” She points to the Trump bus. “He just says it like it is. He’s the only person who doesn’t try to convince me of both sides.”
Audiences, both live and on television, respond to Trump’s aggression, says Richard Thornton, one of Goertz’s co-chairs for the Trump operation in Iowa. “I love to watch the look on their faces. Sometimes he’s a little strong, and he may step over the line. But he doesn’t double dribble. He just shoots away.”
To watch old Apprentice episodes is to understand that what Trump-leaning voters find appealing—along with his undisguised contempt for “illegals,” opponents with homely faces, and world leaders whose identities can be grouped under the umbrella “Arab name, Arab name, Arab name”—is the C-suite bully. Yes, for some viewers, there’s a kind of glee in Trump’s lack of self-awareness, blowing his own horn—claiming (in the second debate) that “the hedge fund guys … all love me,” or (to contestants on The Apprentice) that he inhabits “the nicest apartment in New York,” a place usually only visited by “presidents and kings.” But the money shot of each episode arrives when he fires another unsophisticated, desperate, or merely hopeful contestant.
Trump is a boss who takes delight in canning people. He calls them by turns “stupid,” “losers,” “absolutely terrible,” and “a very, very ineffective leader.” A group of aspirants earns a special distinction: “In this boardroom, we’ve never had a team lose so badly.” Then, in a tuxedo, he tells them, “Go home. Go home,” as an overhead shot depicts several humiliated men in Florsheims wheeling their carry-on luggage through the Trump Tower lobby. Trump’s capricious lowering of the boom brings to mind Joe Pesci toying with the uninitiated in the early nightclub scene in Goodfellas. When a woman tries to speak up for a man who’s about to get fired, Trump asks her, “What are you doing to yourself? How stupid is that?” Then he fires her instead, apparently for being too nice. Trump abruptly fires another man simply for the humble revelation that he comes from a “white-trash background.”
“You think I want to hire somebody that’s white trash?” Trump asks rhetorically. “How stupid can you be?”
For others, it’s presumably a different side of Trump that renders the show satisfying: the mentor presiding over his meritocratic tournament of Big Business, doling out wisdom between the firings and insult-comedy shtick. The weeding-out games tend to be pure sales competitions. Unlike in talent pageants or food or fashion reality shows, winners and losers are determined strictly by the numbers.
On occasion, Trump relishes the opportunity to be generous. There was the time he dismissed a contestant who had designed (and modeled) the most egregiously skimpy, pink swimsuit. Trump permitted him to keep the trunks as his parting gift. Trump preaches a work ethic of diligence and optimism. “Do what you love, and you’ll be successful,” he often says. On The Celebrity Apprentice, he made a point of donating his own money to losing contestants’ favorite charities simply because they asked or because he felt they deserved to have fared better. Recently, when Fortune surveyed most of the winners from the original, pre-celebrity series, they praised his loyalty, attention to detail, and willingness to share practical advice once they came to work for him. One described Trump as “a guy who held up his end of the bargain,” adding, “he truly took me under his wing.”
One morning in September finds Goertz handling phone calls at her kitchen table. “We haven’t moved into our office yet—this week,” she says. Her husband, a local TV weather forecaster, is asleep; he’s on air during the lobster shift. In their driveway is her Hummer H3 with vanity plates that read, “HEY TANA.” She has a small study in a corner of her basement stocked with hundreds of purses and 500 self-help books, including Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich, some Dale Carnegie, and Trump’s No Such Thing as Over-Exposure.
Although she’s yet to meet one of her two fellow campaign co-chairs in Iowa—a former military man in Sioux City—she’s in steady contact with the other, Thornton. A well-connected lobbyist in Des Moines who shows up in her phone as “Buddah” when he calls (a typo—she means the deity), he keeps asking her to fix him up with her girlfriends. Thornton says Goertz’s ability to warm up a crowd before she introduces Trump is “the kind of thing that makes you want to have a blood transfusion from her.” A lot of folks call Goertz requesting her help in getting Trump to show up to promote their events. “You want me to use my Trump card,” is her way of conveying the audacity of the ask.
She returns messages from strangers in other states who’ve seen her on TV and would like to volunteer. Most are retired, and talk about the country “heading in the wrong direction” or needing to get “back on track.” One man, a former contractor in Indiana, wants to handicap the race. He asks about the threats posed by Vice President Joe Biden and “the socialist.” “Do we need to be concerned about the surgeon?” he asks.
“No, no, we don’t,” Goertz says. “He doesn’t have the business experience.” She adds that he’s low-energy. “I’m excited,” she says to the caller before hanging up. “I’m working for the next president of the United States.”
CNN calls asking if she’ll appear later in the day to be interviewed as a Trump spokeswoman. She has her Des Moines-based business manager call back to explain that “I can’t do immigration or anything regarding the debates.”
Iowa first, then the world
Goertz has found 20 delegates using Apprentice-inspired tasks. One is her son, Myles, a senior at the University of Iowa. “He won a social media campaign I came up with to get likes for Trump,” she says. “He got hundreds, maybe—it’s a very liberal school—to be named the campus caucus leader. Basically, he beat, like, his eight friends, who I was pushing to do it. But he met Mr. Trump in Dubuque, and he was thrilled. Trump says he’s going to go far.”
Iowa is currently the only state in which the campaign builds support through contests, but Goertz says she plans to replicate the practice elsewhere when she hits the road with the Trump team. “Trump personally told me he’s taking me with him,” she says.
Working for Trump poses unique challenges for the advance staff. “People show up automatically with Trump, especially the press,” she says. “When he’s thinking of coming to Iowa, we actually have to keep it quiet so that local security isn’t overtaxed.”
Her other duties include hiring the Trump bus and getting “a wrap for it and a driver,” she says. “And I have to find the place where supporters can come watch the debates on TV.” Goertz adds: “I got a Sprint car driver to wrap the wing of a car with a Trump sign. And when the car died in the practice lap”—it needed a new engine—“I found another driver to drive with the Trump wing in half an hour.”
Trump’s national political director, Michael Glassner, called to tell her, “Good job, kid.”
On the June day when Trump announced his candidacy, Goertz called his office in New York and offered to help in Iowa. “I spoke to Rona, his secretary—we’ve talked for 10 years,” she says. “I just always figured having Trump close to me was a win.” Within the week, she was having a three-hour interview at a Des Moines coffee shop with Laudner, who she says told her he was a fan of The Apprentice and offered her a paid position as they stood to say goodbye. At first, she thought that, in a Trump administration, she’d be well-suited to an ambassadorship (“the Bahamas or Bermuda”) but has since come to feel that a White House job “would make me seen and known better here in America.”
Goertz says she was the first of her ex-Apprentice cohort to so much as volunteer for the campaign. “Now, they’re all asking me for jobs,” she says. “Guess what I tell them? ‘Ask Trump yourself.’ ”