DES MOINES — With relative ease John Delaney made his way through the throngs of thousands of Iowans at the State Fair.
He was not forced to stop every 10 steps to shake hands or pose for a picture. A trip to see the famous butter cow went uninterrupted.
Delaney is running for president of the United States. The 55-year-old Democratic Congressman from Maryland has campaigned exhaustively in Iowa over the past year in hopes of building recognition in himself and his campaign once the field starts to expand next year.
As his stroll through the State Fair crowd this past week showed, Delaney, despite his extensive campaigning in Iowa, is yet to become a household name here. But his labors have not gone completely unnoticed. He was greeted by a few fair-goers and asked about some of his policies. One woman complimented Delaney for his television campaign ads.
“I really like his commercials. That’s how I was first introduced to him,” Luann Conklin, of Strawberry Point, said after speaking to Delaney. “He seems like he’s a breath of fresh air. I like how he says (in his campaign ads) ‘I’m going to tell you something you haven’t heard in a long time: the truth.’ I think we need a lot of that right now.”
Conklin said Delaney is a worthy candidate and could win the Iowa caucuses, when Iowa Democrats will decide who they want to be their party’s candidate to take on Republican President Donald Trump.
The caucuses are 17 months away.
Delaney has not been the only Democrat sniffing around Iowa. More than a dozen stated or potential Democratic presidential candidates have been to Iowa the past two years.
But none have been an Iowa regular like Delaney. His first trip was just more than a year ago, and he has made more than a dozen trips here. He has hosted or attended roughly 170 events, his campaign said.
This past week Delaney spoke at the Democratic Wing Ding in northern Iowa and completed his effort to visit each of the state’s 99 counties. He is the first presidential candidate to accomplish the 99-county feat since John Edwards in 2007, according to the Delaney campaign. And Delaney did it before the caucus campaign has started in earnest.
The Delaney campaign has already spent more than $3.5 million, according to federal campaign finance records. Although he has raised roughly $1 million, Delaney is largely self-funding his campaign; the wealthy former businessman has loaned his campaign $2.5 million.
For Delaney, his early barnstorming of Iowa and broadcasting of multiple television campaign ads is an effort to boost his recognition among Democrats here and develop support and relationships that could prove helpful once the Democratic field inevitably expands next year.
“What we have accomplished, and what we will continue to do through the fall, is to make sure people know who I am and what my message is,” Delaney said in an interview. “So when the starting gun goes off, probably January of next year ... I’m going to have a nice head start.”
In addition to representing Maryland in Congress since 2013, Delaney is a businessman. He launched two companies that eventually went public on the New York Stock Exchange. He was named an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004. He met his wife, April, in law school at Georgetown University, and they have four daughters between the ages of 10 and 24.
As a candidate, Delaney has been running a centrist, big-tent Democratic campaign. He describes himself as a unifier who works with Republicans in Congress, and says what voters want most is for their elected officials in the federal government to simply work together to accomplish things that make their lives better. His updated stump speech during his most recent trip to Iowa included calls for the Democratic Party to reach out to progressive and centrist Democrats, independent voters and Republicans disillusioned by Trump.
Delaney said those groups of voters agree on many policy issues, including immigration reform, early-childhood education and infrastructure investment, and that Democrats can bring them together.
“If this coalition comes together we can win every election, and most importantly we can govern. And we can start getting real things done for the American people,” Delaney said during his remarks at the State Fair on the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox.
Another speaker at the Wing Ding, Michael Avenatti, embodied some of the challenges that Delaney’s candidacy could face.
A lawyer, Avenatti represents adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels. Avenatti’s appearance at the Wing Ding boosted ticket sales and his presence overshadowed the other 2020 candidates, including Delaney.
And Avenatti’s message that Democrats must fight in order to defeat Trump in 2020 resonated with some of those in attendance. Avenatti’s message — he tweaked former first lady Michelle Obama’s famous line when he said, “When they go low, I say we hit harder” — stands in contrast to Delaney’s call for unity and reaching across the political aisle.
Delaney said fighting back against Trump and his policies and calling for unity are not mutually exclusive. He noted, for example, that he joined protests at airports when Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. from multiple Muslim majority countries.
“Strength is really determined based on your actions and how you handle a situation,” Delaney said. “Trump is a loudmouth bully. ... As we all know from growing up, those folks are not actually tough at the end of the day.
“What the real question for the Democratic Party is, Do we want to win? And if we want to win, we need to get more voters to vote for us,” Delaney said. “It’s simple math, at the end of the day.”
Delaney hopes that message catches on with Iowa Democrats, and he’s doing the legwork to make it happen. His grassroots campaign is similar to previous efforts by Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. As a candidate flying under the radar but setting up shop in Iowa, Delaney stirs memories of Jimmy Carter, the man who made the Iowa caucuses a national phenomenon.
“My impression is I would describe it as Jimmy Carter 2.0,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University and co-author of “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses.” “Carter left the governor’s mansion in Georgia and basically camped out here for months.”
Goldford said in order for Delaney to become a front-running candidate, eventually his campaign will have to break through with voters, as did previous Iowa winners like Huckabee at the 2007 Republican straw poll or Santorum in 2011.
“You can have all the organization in the world, but at some point you have to catch fire. Lightning has to strike,” Goldford said. “He’s put in all sorts of time and money. But you could have all the wood and chips in the world, but you have to have a match.”
For now, at least in part because Iowa Democrats are more focused on this fall’s midterm elections than 2020, Delaney is settling for embers, with the hope that next year he can catch fire.
“He says, ‘Let’s work on things we agree on and let’s have a discussion on things we disagree on,’” said Conklin, the Iowa woman who greeted Delaney at the State Fair. “And I think we need more of that.”