John Delaney: Democratic Don Quixote or genuine American dreamer?

John Delaney takes a ride at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines last August.
John Delaney takes a ride at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines last August. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

At an old electricity substation in north-west Washington, perhaps fittingly for the Donald Trump era, colourful murals of John F Kennedy have disappeared behind wooden boards for months, due to construction work. But a few minutes’ walk away, past a Metro station, a bland shopping mall and the Maryland border, is the new election campaign headquarters of a man working hard and spending big in an attempt to assume the Kennedy mantle.

Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard and Julián Castro may now have stolen his thunder, but former congressman John Delaney was the first Democrat with national political experience to formally announce a 2020 presidential campaign. Hoping to prove that the early bird catches the worm, he did so all the way back in July 2017. He has been hustling for votes ever since, with a Kennedy-inspired message of common purpose. Critics, opinion polls and his campaign Twitter account (with just 12,000 followers) suggest he is more Don Quixote, embarked on a romantic but doomed quest.

Delaney has made 21 trips to Iowa, the first caucus state, visiting all 99 counties and making 214 stops. He has also made 10 trips to New Hampshire, the first primary state, visiting seven counties and making 96 stops. Having spent $3.5m, recruited staff and opened offices, he has become Exhibit A for America’s never-ending campaign, in stark contrast to the UK and other countries where general elections take a month or two, four or five years apart.

“I do think our election cycles are very long and I don’t think that’s great,” admits the affable Delaney. But he reasons: “The presidency of the United States is a very unique elected position. So if anything merits a longer vetting process, the presidency does to some extent. In general our election cycles are too long, but this job is so consequential that I don’t think it’s a bad thing to give people more time to get to know you.”

Weren’t people sick of politics after the traumatic 2016 election? Not a bit of it.

“People were totally excited to talk about 2020,” he says. “Democrats are quite excited to turn the page on the current president, so for most it’s not too early to talk about 2020. Most Democrats are not saying, ‘Well, let’s give this guy a chance.’ They’re way past that. The notion of who’s going to be our nominee in 2020 and how do we beat him is something every Democrat in this country really wants to talk about.”

‘A sense of stewardship’

Another much scrutinised quirk of the American electoral system is the arbitrary power of Iowa and New Hampshire, neither representative of the country’s racial diversity. Warren, a Massachusetts senator and the first major candidate to enter the contest after announcing an exploratory committee, earlier this month campaigned in Iowa until she went hoarse. There are still more than 650 days until election day.

Again, Delaney defends a process that requires politicians to meet voters in their living rooms and coffee shops rather than run nationally.

“If you had a primary on one day and everyone voted the same day they” – he points to a big flatscreen TV showing cable news – “would determine the nominees. So I think there’s a valuable role for a few states to go early and the states have to be of a size that you can actually campaign in them. You can’t campaign in California in a grassroots way. It’s too big.

“Iowa and New Hampshire fit that size, and you get the sense that the people who are engaged in politics in Iowa and New Hampshire carry a sense of stewardship with them of the role they play. They don’t actually think they pick the president. They think they ask the right questions and there’s a valuable role for that.”

Delaney backed Hillary Clinton last time but offers an unexpected criticism: “Neither Hillary or Bernie [Sanders] campaigned in Iowa or New Hampshire the way you’re supposed to. They came and did big events. That’s not what the people expect. They expect to sit down in small group gatherings and ask you questions.”

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