DES MOINES — Partway through his stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in August, Representative John Delaney spotted a familiar face walking by.
“Mr. Speaker!” he called from his perch atop The Des Moines Register’s soapbox. “What a nice surprise. Speaker Boehner is in the house. You’re looking good, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate you coming out and supporting me, I really do.”
John Boehner, the former House speaker, wearing a blue-and-white gingham shirt almost identical to Mr. Delaney’s — and looking distinctly as though he wished he had taken a different route from the pork chop stand to the parking lot — was instantly surrounded by reporters.
“I worked on a lot of stuff with him. He’s a good member,” was about all Mr. Boehner, a Republican, would say of Mr. Delaney, a Maryland Democrat running for president. “Oh God. I’m just walking by. If it weren’t Delaney there — I’m walking by, I got a pork chop, I was walking by, I saw Delaney. I said, ‘Aw, I’ll stop.’ I should have known better. I should have kept walking.”
It was hardly a reaffirming moment for Mr. Delaney, but he will take any recognition he can get. Political junkies like to joke that the 2020 campaign began the moment the polls closed on Tuesday, but Mr. Delaney is already more than a year into his.
He is well aware that better-known Democratic politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are attracting more news coverage even though they have not yet officially declared, and he knows that even though he is the only major candidate running right now, he is running from behind.
So why do it? “I think I’m the right person for the job, but not enough people knew who I was or still know who I am,” Mr. Delaney, 55, said. “The way to solve that problem, it seems to me, is to get in early and just work harder than everyone else.”
While Mr. Boehner’s clear discomfort showed how little he had expected to run into a campaign-trail press scrum more than two years before the 2020 election, Mr. Delaney seemed to thoroughly enjoy the pageantry in Iowa, whose caucuses are the first test for presidential candidates at the ballot box. He strolled over to WHO-HD’s corn poll and dropped a kernel in a jar for Fred Hubbell, the Democratic candidate for governor, who would lose three months later. He grabbed a rug and went on the Giant Slide with the youngest of his four daughters, Grace, 11, who looked unconvinced of the wisdom of this activity.
That night, he would cheerfully recall the Boehner encounter in a speech at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding.
And two days later, he would hit the last of Iowa’s 99 counties, completing a classic campaign feat before any better-known opponent started. He isn’t running for re-election to the House, the better to go “all in” on running for president.
It’s hard to overstate how unusual Mr. Delaney’s timeline is. He announced his candidacy on July 28, 2017, almost three years before the Democratic convention. John T. Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that with the arguable exception of President Trump, whose campaign apparatus never disbanded after 2016, he didn’t know of “any case of a serious major-party candidate announcing so far before the election.”
Characteristically for a man who spent much of his career in finance — and who listened to one Iowan describe how the cost of his medication had skyrocketed and proceeded to calculate the “annual compounded increase” in his head — Mr. Delaney likened his campaign start date to inflation-adjusted dollars. “Campaigns have gotten much longer,” he said. “When Jimmy Carter announced, which was effectively right after the midterms — back then, on a relative pace, this was similar to what I’m doing now.”
Mr. Carter was the quintessential “came out of nowhere” candidate, something Mr. Delaney hopes to duplicate. But the retail politicking that lifted Mr. Carter in 1976 is not as decisive as it once was. Around this time in 2015, the five Republicans who had visited Iowa the most were all polling in the bottom half of the pack. Two days after the caucuses in 2016, not one was still in the race.
And yet, by some measures, Mr. Delaney’s strategy has been effective. In an Emerson College poll in September, only 21 percent of Iowa voters were unfamiliar with him. At the Iowa State Fair, one couple — Connie Waller, 74, and Don Waller, 75, farmers in nearby Van Meter — even recognized him from his TV ads.
“He’s just coming out and saying, ‘Here’s who I am and here’s what I believe in,’” Ms. Waller said approvingly. “I like him right now. But there’s not a lot of others.”
Mr. Delaney’s central message is simple: Globalization has been an “extraordinarily positive” force, he says, but not for everyone, and politicians should have acted — through tax incentives, infrastructure investments, better public education, universal health care — to make it positive for more people. Instead, they were “too busy fighting.”
In an interview on his campaign bus, winding through corn and soybean fields west of Des Moines, he said he would start to change that by dedicating the first 100 days of his administration exclusively to existing bipartisan legislation. He cited a criminal justice overhaul drafted by Mr. Booker and Rand Paul; immigration reform as proposed in a bill that passed the Senate with a supermajority in 2013, but that Mr. Boehner refused to bring to the House floor; and repairs to the Affordable Care Act outlined by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray.
“So much of politics these days has become, quote, ‘about politics,’” Mr. Delaney said in an earlier interview, adding that he wanted to emphasize civility, bipartisanship and compromise. “People getting into these pointless arguments about ideology, and are you left or center or progressive, or all this garbage.”
A self-described “pragmatic idealist,” Mr. Delaney was a businessman before he was elected to the House in 2012: the founder of two financial companies and, at one point, the youngest chief executive on the New York Stock Exchange. Those companies made him one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated net worth of more than $90 million — allowing him now to finance most of his campaign while, by his own acknowledgment, not yet focusing on fund-raising. At the end of the last quarter, he had raised about $1 million and contributed $2.5 million of his own money.
But on the trail, he emphasizes his working-class roots. Neither of his parents went to college. His father, an electrician, belonged to a union that covered half of Mr. Delaney’s tuition at Columbia, “which has always been a great reminder for me that none of us do it alone in life,” he said to a crowd in Adel. “I would have nothing that I have today but for a bunch of electricians reaching into their pockets.”
Mr. Delaney’s strategy is classic small-town retail politics. Over five days in August — his 14th trip to Iowa — he covered more than 700 miles and held more than two dozen events, many of them featuring fewer than 20 people in cities with populations of barely more than 1,000.
At a cafe in Greenfield (population 1,800), he met with the Adair County Optimist Club. In Panora (population 1,100), he campaigned for a House candidate, Cindy Axne, and the Democratic nominee for Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, Tim Gannon.
In Grundy Center (population 2,700), he canvassed with Dennis Evans, a candidate for the Iowa House. In Atlantic (population 6,700), he visited the farm of another Iowa House candidate, Denise O’Brien, and asked her about agriculture policy.
Less than five hours later, he added one of Ms. O’Brien’s policy suggestions — making the national farm bill last longer than five years — to his stump speech.
At the Greenfield event in particular, Mr. Delaney received a warm welcome. Afterward, Marcia Fulton, 77, of Creston, declared herself “extremely impressed.” But she also said she was “anxious to see who else comes into” the race.
The caucuses, after all, were still more than 500 days away.
Maggie Astor is a political reporter based in New York. Previously, she was a general assignment reporter and a copy editor for The Times and a reporter for The Record in New Jersey. @MaggieAstor
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