BOONE, Iowa — John Delaney wipes the sweat off his brow on a 95-degree day and looks at the crowd he will be addressing.
He’s the final speaker at a Democratic party picnic in a small town in Iowa, and to many candidates for president it wouldn’t seem worth the effort. Not Delaney. He smiles and presents his case.
“We need to come together and own our future,” he says. “But the way we do that is by going back to our roots, the roots that this country was built upon and grew from in the sunshine of a cause worth fighting for. United we stand. And I believe that in my soul.”
John Delaney is a businessman and former three-term congressman from Maryland (2013-19). He’s running for the Democratic nomination for president, and he has a plan and a strategy. His plan is like many of the other presidential candidates — do well in the February 3rd Iowa caucuses and ride that win to national prominence — but his strategy is singular: Devote more than two years to actively campaigning in the Hawkeye state.
Delaney declared his candidacy on July 28, 2017 — 920 days before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, the earliest announcement in history. The previous record was 615 days early, set by Republican Pete du Pont before the 1988 caucuses. It’s not du Pont’s example that Delaney is emulating, but Jimmy Carter, who declared his candidacy 405 days before the 1976 Democratic caucuses and ended up shocking the nation with his victory. As of early October, according to his campaign, Delaney has visited all 99 Iowa counties and held 379 events in the state. While Bernie Sanders has just started running TV ads in Iowa, Delaney ran his first ad in February 2018.
What Delaney is offering voters is a candidacy based on what he calls pragmatic problem solving. In Des Moines, he tells his audience, “I don’t think the American people need impossible promises. We need real solutions. I don’t think what the American people need is more ideology, more partisanship, more gridlock. They actually need us to get things done.” His most consistent refrain to every audience is his quest for “finding common ground” and he talks about bipartisanship a lot. “You can’t believe bipartisanship or common ground are dirty words if you actually want to do things to help the American people,” he says. “My life has been about getting things done.”
Delaney tells Iowans that he has a to-do list of things he will get done if he’s elected president:
Education: “Every child should have Pre-K as a right. Everyone should have community college or career and technical training after high school as part of basic public education,” he says in Iowa City. However, he does not believe that college should be free or all college debt should be forgiven. “Senator Sanders is basically saying we should take two trillion dollars and pay off everyone’s debt, even if you’re wealthy. No, I’m a responsible leader and I’ve got real solutions.”
Immigration: Delaney wants comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants, including those who came to the U.S. as children, or “Dreamers,” and increased funding for border security. “I think it’s actually something we can get done because most Americans support it. It’s a big deal.”
Rural issues: When asked what he would say to the people of Kansas, Delaney says, “I’m going to create incentives for people who invest in rural America and I’m going to require that 25% of federal government contractors have their employees work in rural America.”
Health Care: Delaney is not a fan of Medicare-for-All (“You think we’re going to win an election if we tell half our seniors that their Medicare Advantage is over? Wow! Let’s fix what’s broken, let’s leave what’s working”) but has his own plan called “Bettercare,” what Delaney calls a “Mixed model, like Germany has, where everyone has a basic health care package but allows their citizens to buy private insurance plans.” Under Bettercare, people who do not opt for government health care would get a tax credit they could apply to their private insurance program. “It’s just a matter of politics,” he says. “One hundred-fifty million people have private health insurance and a lot of them like it a lot. We have to live in the real world.”
Climate change: Delaney has one of the most unique ideas on cutting carbon emissions of any of the candidates, which he calls Direct Air Capture. As he explains, “These are machines that currently exist. Think of them like CO2 vacuums. They actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s not science fiction.” Delaney says that a whole new industry would grow around CO2 vacuums, creating 300,000 jobs, and he would place them in the center of the country, not the coasts. He says, “I’m going to build a whole new industry in rural America around direct-air capture with these CO2 vacuums.”
Delaney’s overarching campaign theme is that the U.S. has thrown away its ability to solve big problems. He says in Iowa City, “We should be in an entirely different place in this country. We should be curing cancer. We should be alleviating poverty. We should be leading the way on the world stage.” He asks the audience how this non-action happened, and answers, “We stopped doing our job. In the last several decades we’ve done nothing. And the cost of doing nothing is not nothing. We’re paying a huge price. Huge parts of our country have been left behind. The American people deserve the politics of progress, where we actually get things done.”
When John Delaney finishes his remarks in Boone, I ask him directly about seeing Jimmy Carter as a model. He says, “Yes, it’s definitely the Jimmy Carter strategy, getting in early and spending a lot of time here.” The crux of this strategy is not to fret over small crowds and low poll numbers, but instead just keep grinding away, event after event, handshake after handshake, with a hoped-for big payoff at the end. Before walking away, Delaney looks back, smiles, and raises a finger: “There’s a big key though. The key is not to peak too early!” With that, he turns around and heads off to another town in Iowa.