Updated at 4:20 p.m. ET on January 20, 2020.
WHAT CHEER, Iowa—Don’t let the name fool you: What Cheer is a dreary little town. Other than the gas station, the most notable place in the city is an old building that apparently used to house the What Cheer Telephone Company, whatever that was. Today, cheap white curtains are drawn across the windows. It looks like someone is living there.
John Delaney is here at dusk on a Friday night in January because he’s still running for president. Did you know he was running for president? Probably not. If you did once know—Delaney was actually the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, way back in July 2017—you probably forgot. And if you did know he was still running, the question you’re probably asking is the one I am here to explore: Why? Why is a candidate who’s barely registering in any poll still traipsing across Iowa day after day when he has absolutely no chance of winning, or even of seeming like more than an outlying blip on the radar?
Today began with an event at a pizza place in the small central-Iowa city of Montezuma, which 12 people attended. This evening, the door-knocking starts at a house across the street from the old telephone-company building. No answer. At the second house, a light in the front hall illuminates a Christmas tree, but no one answers the door here either. Third house, also no answer. Finally, at the fourth house a man wearing pajama bottoms answers the door. After listening to Delaney make his pitch for six or seven minutes, he says that while he’s committed to voting for a Democrat in the general election, he’s not planning to caucus—and that if he was, he’d probably go with Andrew Yang, because he likes Yang’s proposed Freedom Dividend, his signature policy of providing a guaranteed basic income of $1,000 a month to all Americans.
“But that can’t happen!” Delaney says.
It’s quickly evident that Delaney can’t get this voter, but courtesy dictates that he now listen politely while the man talks about how he wants to fix up the shed across the road.
After that, Delaney’s small caravan, a big blue-and-red bus trailed by a car, rolls on. No one is home at the next two houses. When a woman pulls into the driveway of the second house, Delaney’s campaign manager tries to talk to her, but she walks in the back door and doesn’t come out again. Up a hill and around a corner is another house that the campaign staff have identified as belonging to a Democratic voter. An old man opens the door. He says he’s recovering from eye surgery but that he doesn’t like Donald Trump and is happy to talk. Finally—a prospect! He says the main thing he’s looking for in a candidate is honesty. Delaney makes his pitch, but the man is soon trying to wrap up the conversation. “Hope you do well,” the man says. Delaney invites him to a free dinner that the campaign is hosting the next town over. The man just smiles noncommittally.
At this late stage of a very long presidential campaign that has by any conventional measure been remarkably unsuccessful, this actually counts as a pretty good hour for Delaney. How, I asked him as he walked away from the old man’s house, does he keep his head up?
“I’m disappointed it hasn’t gone better, but I think it’s a privilege to do this,” he said. “I meet people who are really struggling. And I realize, you know, I have really no problems. And the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives is—what better way to spend my time?”
A successful businessman and former representative from Maryland, Delaney could be spending his time on pretty much anything else. Or anywhere else. Like Fiji. Or at least Florida. Or lifting weights, which he likes to show off that he does. He’s not a billionaire, but public estimates tend to put his wealth in the high hundreds of millions. But instead of relaxing on a beach, he’s sitting on a ratty recliner draped with a faded afghan, riding around on a bus with his name on it to meet with small groups in small towns, insisting that he’s the only one talking about what they care about.
Running for president, even when it’s going well, requires a level of delusion. Yet, after two and a half years and $10 million of his own money (and 44 trips and counting to Iowa), Delaney’s delusion has been replaced by a kind of stoic acceptance that approaches Zen.*
“My incredibly supportive wife even gets more frustrated than I do about this,” he said. “I feel like I’ve changed the debate on a couple of issues, mostly health care. I think I went on the debate stage twice and took down Medicare for All, which deserved to be taken down.” At the July Democratic debate, in Detroit, he went hard after Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for what he called their “impossible promises” and “fairy-tale economics.” “And I think I did a huge service to the party. And I think people now realize that. That doesn’t mean that you get credit … Is that frustrating? Yes. Do I think I made a contribution? Yes.”
But all that money and time just for one night when CNN turned him into a foil for Sanders and Warren? Is that enough to justify his long campaign? Is that why he ran?
“No, it’s not why I ran. But I’m happy that at least we’re not talking about Medicare for All,” he said. “I do not think we’re going to put up a candidate who runs on Medicare for All. I think I had something to do with that.” With Sanders currently surging in polls, it’s uncertain whether Delany’s prediction is true—but his debate performance may have helped create a template for criticism of Medicare for All on political/fiscal-realism grounds that damaged Warren in particular.
He pointed to other ways he says he’s inflected the Democratic race, noting that the Washington Post op-ed he published when he launched his campaign invoked automation and job retraining long before anyone had heard of Andrew Yang. He says he’s helped keep Democratic trade policy from going off the rails. (He’s the only Democrat running, Joe Biden included, who still supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which not that long ago Barack Obama was calling his most important foreign-policy priority.) And more than a year before either Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg entered the race, Delaney was the rich businessman talking about the economy and self-funding his own high-circulation TV ads. (Steyer and Bloomberg are both a lot richer.)
As other candidates beat him at his own game or voice his ideas to greater response, Delaney’s been reduced to playing pundit, welcoming these candidates and their ideas into the race. He always knew that his campaign would be a long shot. His hope was that by getting in almost absurdly early, he could generate more attention, make himself less of a long shot. That didn’t work.
“Politics is not like other things,” he told me. “In a lot of things in life, when you're there first, people realize you're there first. You break a story, they know who broke the story. If you come up with an innovation, that's protected, normally, so no one can just copy it.”
“I always believed in the Wayne Gretzky line ’You skate to where the puck is going.’ I think I was skating to where the puck is going. I think the puck’s gone there now. Do I wish I got more benefit for being the first to skate there? Yeah. Have I? No.”
I asked why, given that he seems to have reached the acceptance stage, he hasn’t ended his campaign, as many more prominent candidates have. He said that he’s by nature a person who finishes what he starts—and that means continuing on at least until the Iowa caucuses, on February 3, even though that will cost him more money, and bring his tally of trips to Iowa closer to 50.
In Montezuma, he told a local reporter that his aim now is to surprise.
What does “surprise” mean? I asked him a little later, as we were riding on his bus.
“I don’t actually have a firmer answer than that. Obviously, the expectations really are very low,” he said. “It’s kind of like, you’ll know when you see it.”
*This story originally misstated that Delaney had spent $40 million of his own money on his campaign. He has spent $10 million and loaned his campaign $25 million.