Since John Delaney declared his candidacy for President, in July of 2017, earlier than any of his opponents and more than three years before Election Day, he has languished at around one per cent in most national polls. He has raised just two million dollars, a fraction of the funds that front-runners such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders earn in a single quarter. (His campaign, which has so far spent five times that sum, is largely self-financed.) On his YouTube channel, which has fewer than five hundred subscribers, Delaney casts himself as a “pragmatic idealist,” dismissing the “impossible promises” of his progressive competitors. His earnest tweets have inspired a hashtag among his detractors: #DropOutDelaney. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has urged him to “sashay away” from the crowded field. Rumors publicized last month, which Delaney has denied, suggest that even some senior members of his campaign have advised him to exit the race. At the most recent Democratic debates, in July, Delaney’s repeated criticisms of Medicare for All allowed Elizabeth Warren to land the applause line of the night: “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.” Not long afterward, someone on Wikipedia vandalized Delaney’s biography to suggest that the remark had resulted in his death.
Yet Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland who began his career in business, has outpaced the rest of the field in at least one respect. Of all the Democrats vying to challenge Trump, he is the only candidate to have visited each of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties. He has held twice as many events in the state as anyone else, spent more than a million dollars on local television advertisements, and staffed up early, opening his eighth office there before the first debates. (Recently, he hired away a deputy state director from Marianne Williamson’s campaign.) Last week, as Delaney drove across Iowa in a crimson pickup truck that once belonged to his father, completing his thirty-fourth swing through the state, he seemed, for once, to be carrying some momentum. During the twenty-four hours following his showdown with Warren, in the second debate, his campaign received a ten-fold surge in fund-raising. “I have people who are moderates who thought I crushed it,” Delaney told me on Tuesday, as he sipped an iced tea at the counter of a diner in Marshalltown, Iowa. “And people who, you know, really are pretty far to the left, who think I did terribly. No one thinks I did an average job.”
Delaney is tanned and affable, with a patient grin that reveals only the top row of his teeth. At campaign stops in Iowa, he presents himself, by turns, as a cheery “team player” and a fatherly coach. He often invokes the strategy of Jimmy Carter, who capitalized on an early start and retail politics to seize victory in the state. He reminds crowds that “bipartisanship” is not a “dirty word,” and offers centrist collegiality as the antithesis of Trumpism. “If you look at those forty candidates who took back the House of Representatives,” he told two dozen Democrats at the Marshalltown Public Library, “they ran on solving problems for their constituents. They ran on kitchen-table, pocket-book issues. They said things like ‘Hey, I’ll work with the other side. And it’s good for my district.’ ” He often compliments residents of Iowa, which flipped two congressional districts in the midterm elections, for “punching above their weight.” (“That’s five per cent of the seats, and you’re only one per cent of the population.”) His most progressive proposal is a national-service requirement, which would assign eighteen-year-olds to infrastructure apprenticeships and clean-energy projects across the country; he entreats teen-age Iowans in his audiences to imagine joining forces with distant city kids and flying south to rebuild damaged levees.
During his first career, as a businessman, Delaney co-founded two publicly traded companies, one of which granted loans to small health-care providers. At one point, he became the youngest C.E.O. in the history of the New York Stock Exchange, and his experience as an entrepreneur informs his politics as much as his perseverance. During difficult business periods, he recalled at one campaign stop, he never “holed up” in his office. Instead, to maintain morale, he roamed the hallways, greeting his employees with a friendly face. “If they see me walking around talking to folks—acting, you know, like it’s going to be O.K.—they’ll probably think it’s going to be O.K.,” he said. At the diner, when I asked him whether the acrimony directed toward him online has ever deterred him, Delaney shook his head with characteristic cool. “We used to have the Iowa caucus going first, and then the New Hampshire primary,” he told me. “What’s effectively happened is the social-media primary has been wedged ahead of it. There are people who are just glued to their social-media accounts, commenting all the time.” The difference, Delaney added, is that “that primary doesn’t count.”
Delaney’s crowds are not large. They lack the clamor of the house parties and town halls held by some of his highest-polling competitors, but he sees small turnouts as occasions to approach every member of the audience, ask every name, shake every hand. At campaign events, he never runs out of hardbacks of his memoir, “The Right Answer.” On a windy, cloudless morning in Rippey, Iowa, a corn and soybean staple with a population of a few hundred, Delaney greeted a dozen farmers gathered in a machine shed. Outside, birds circled the grain bins and settled, shrieking, on electrical lines. A member of the campaign staff righted a standing banner that had been toppled by the breeze. Kent Scheib, a farmer who had heard about the event at his barbershop, praised Delaney’s commitment to the Affordable Care Act. “Everybody knows these hospitals don’t get full rates under Medicare, and they’ll close their doors if they don’t get more money,” he told me. “You’re not gonna get moderate Republicans or Independents, if you’re Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, by getting rid of insurance companies.” Emily Weaver, who, with her husband, hosted the event, told Delaney that she respected his consistent composure. “To go so long, and to not be in some kind of meme somewhere losing your cool . . . ” she said, trailing off in admiration. “I see dignity and leadership right here.”
Like most of the voters who showed up to Delaney’s events in Iowa last week, Weaver expressed concerns about the electability of the race’s leftist front-runners. Greene County, where Rippey is located, went overwhelmingly to Trump in 2016. “I’d love to have a woman for President for a change,” Weaver admitted. “But I also know my friends and neighbors, I know Iowa, and I just really feel like a moderate is going to do better here.” Robert Moore, a retired psychology professor who attended another one of Delaney’s stops, told me that he wasn’t even sure that he would describe Delaney as a moderate. “He’s a cognitive progressive,” Moore said, expressing a distinction popular among Delaney’s supporters. “He thinks. And so it’s possible to have progressive ideas and to get them implemented.” In Lamoni, one of Iowa’s poorest towns, a psychiatric nurse practitioner named Mark Hensley stood up to compliment Delaney’s broadmindedness. Hensley, who recently retired, expressed fear that zero-tuition plans proposed by some of the candidates would threaten the livelihood of Iowan cities centered on private universities. He recounted an unpleasant run-in with a field worker from a rival campaign, whom he considered “dogmatic,” and told Delaney, “I like the fact that you take information from a lot of sources.” Once the event had ended, Hensley told me that he planned to caucus for Delaney.
Delaney has yet to qualify for the third round of debates, in September, which require candidates to reach two-per-cent support in four approved polls and to attract a hundred and thirty thousand unique donors. Earlier this week, a memo from the D.N.C. informed campaigns that the requirements for the fourth round of debates, in October, will remain the same, extending the window for more candidates to qualify and postponing the long-awaited winnowing of the Democratic field. Delaney told me that he views the third and fourth rounds as “somewhat interchangeable.” It’s important to be in one of them, he clarified, adding that he had a “much better chance” of qualifying in time for the latter. When I caught up with Delaney’s wife, April, after his soapbox speech at the Iowa State Fair, she criticized the voter threshold for working against “a more centrist voice.” “To go online, you actually have to have a more fringe message, because that incites,” she said. “We’ll get there. It’ll just take us a little bit longer to get there, because we’re not going to make these impossible promises.”
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