John Delaney has poured a staggering $24m of his own money into running for president. He has been campaigning for the White House for more than two years, and in that time has held more than 200 events in Iowa.
On one recent Thursday morning, these efforts translated into a grand total of 11 people coming out to see Delaney, at a campaign event in the small town of Algona, in the north of the state.
The former Maryland congressman, former businessman and formerly much wealthier candidate is one of a slew of long-shot candidates for the Democratic nomination. In a crowded, historically diverse field, Delaney is part of a group of white, middle-aged men who are forging ahead with their increasingly quixotic presidential campaigns in spite of a collective lack of support.
Delaney strode into Miller’s Sports Bar & Grill, one of a chain of bars across Iowa, just after 10am. One of his team had taped a couple of Delaney 2020 campaign posters to a wall in the back of the bar, and a sign-up list was on a table. The crowd, all silver haired apart from a thirtysomething man who walked in late, were sitting patiently at four different tables.
Clad in the off-duty politician’s uniform of open-necked shirt, blue jeans and casual brown shoes, Delaney got to work, vigorously shaking 11 hands. One member of the crowd was immediately impressed with the 56-year-old.
“You actually look even better than you do on TV,” one woman said.
“I think I’m just going to stay around here,” Delaney quipped.
If Delaney was disappointed with the turnout, he didn’t show it. Besides, in a way, the 11-person crowd was a positive. The night before, on Delaney’s Facebook page, just two people had said they would attend, and one of those was his campaign director.
Delaney, who served in Congress for six years before resigning to run for president, was joking when he said he might just stay around Iowa. But in fact, it would be hard for him to spend more time here. The 58-year-old has made 34 separate visits to the state in two years. This trip was the first of three in August. And the actual vote in Iowa – the state’s caucuses – is still six months away.
It’s a grueling schedule. On Thursday alone, Delaney was scheduled to hold five different events in the space of nine and a half hours.
With the pleasantries over at Miller’s Delaney dived into his pitch. The two most important questions in 2020, he said, are: “Who can beat Trump?” and: “Who is the best leader for this country at this moment in time?”
“I believe I’m the right answer to those two questions,” he concluded.
Delaney’s problem is that very few people agree. Despite a marathon campaign – he declared his candidacy in July 2017, 18 months before any other major contenders – and a big pot of cash, he is barely registering – even in Iowa. Delaney is currently polling at 1% in the state – in ninth place. Nationally, Delaney has just 0.3% of the vote.
But Delaney, an electrician’s son turned millionaire, isn’t about to let a near total lack of support stop him.
“I don’t want to be the president just to be the president,” Delaney said at his second event of the day. “I want to be the president to do the job.”
Later, Delaney was speaking to a crowd of 15 people, at the Rustic Brew in Hampton, an hour and a half drive east of Algona. He had been allocated an area in the back, in a room with a painting of a reindeer on one wall. Delaney had almost immediately been interrupted by a man wearing a Vietnam cap.
The man complained about veterans’ hospitals. Delaney, hoping to appease him, said he would allow veterans to visit a wider range of hospitals for their care. The man in the cap said that was exactly the plan he was opposed to. Delaney said he would talk to him about it later, then carried on with his speech. The man in the cap slumped in his chair, mumbling something to himself.
The main part of Delaney’s pitch is that he can beat Donald Trump and actually pass legislation, whereas, in his view, people such as the leftwing senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are making “impossible promises”.
After Delaney criticized the more ambitious proposals of his rivals during the recent televised Democratic debates, Warren chopped him down, telling the audience: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Far from being cowed by that, Delaney told the Guardian that if he could change one thing about his campaign, he actually would have plugged his centrist credentials earlier.
“The kind of sharp contrasts I’m making now, I would have made them earlier,” Delaney said.
But what Delaney lacks in support, he makes up for in optimism. He brushed off concerns that he won’t make the next Democratic debates – the bar for entry is far higher for the next round, in mid-September – by insisting he could make the one after that, because he expects other candidates to drop out.
As Delaney closed out at the Rustic Brew, his campaign manager abruptly announced that the rest of the day’s events were cancelled. He had only completed two out of five. The campaign manager put it down to a schedule conflict.
The Guardian chased Delaney down in Des Moines the next day, where he was appearing at the Iowa state fair. Delaney spent some time prodding pork chops on a grill – a classic state fair photo opportunity – before speaking for about 15 minutes to a crowd, again pitching his centrist vision. He drew a decent number of people, but his crowd was dwarfed by those who came out for speeches by Warren, Sanders and Biden.
Delaney is probably right when he says other people will soon quit the race. The California congressman Eric Swalwell ended his campaign in July, citing a lack of money and a lack of support. Colorado ex-governor John Hickenlooper dropped out last week. Delaney doesn’t have to make that choice yet. He has loaned his campaign $24m, but according to Forbes, he is worth $200m, so he has plenty of cash left to splurge.
But there will surely come a point where he has to make a decision. Given Delaney is polling within the margin of error of zero, that point might come soon.
Or perhaps Delaney, ever the optimist, could bide his time. If Trump wins in 2020, then there’s always 2024. If Delaney doesn’t bankrupt himself first, maybe he could be a contender.
At the very least, he will know his way around Iowa.