John Delaney is staking his long-shot presidential bid on speaking truth to progressive power.
It’s a gamble, as obvious questions remain about whether Democrats have an appetite for tough medicine and whether he is the right candidate to deliver the message.
Delaney will get his most consequential turn in the spotlight on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET when he appears on CNN’s town hall in Austin, Texas, as part of South by Southwest.
The former Maryland congressman has been running for president for nearly two years with little fanfare or traction, but he is undeterred, delivering a warning for Democrats trying to win back the White House: Lean too far left and re-elect President Donald Trump.
“I do worry about” the party’s leftward shift, Delaney told CNN this week. “If the party starts embracing kind of, if you will, socialism in a pure form, I think that’s a really big mistake. Because it’s not good policy, and it’s definitely not good politics.”
Delaney, a businessman and entrepreneur before getting into politics, has approached his 2020 run from a strictly analytical perspective and often talks about the campaign like a set of business problems to solve. His presidential announcement in July 2017, more than three years before Election Day in 2020, was met with mockery, but Delaney says now that he not only doesn’t regret announcing so early, he also believes that it was the only way for him to get any attention.
“When I looked at it purely as a matter of analytics, I said I obviously have a number of things I have to overcome,” Delaney said. “Not enough people know who I am. So if I wait until everyone else gets in, it will probably be over before it starts.”
While he may not be the best-known Democratic candidate in the field, that theory has made him the most traveled. He’s already logged more than three-dozen trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. He has visited every one of Iowa’s 99 counties and there are plans for him to complete the feat again as well as visiting all 50 states. All of these one-on-one conversations with hundreds of voters have led Delaney to believe there is a market for pragmatism over purity.
“I think the American people are yearning for someone who’s a truth-teller,” Delaney said. “Sometimes the best way to make that point is to be a little bit disagreement with your own party, right?”
A self-described “moderate and centrist,” Delaney knows he faces an uphill climb in a crowded field – even if he was a household name, which he’s not. But he’s visited all 99 counties in Iowa, introducing himself to small groups of voters and trying to influence the conversation in the party’s primary fight.
“I don’t agree with the Green New Deal. I’ll just say it,” Delaney told Iowa voters on a recent Sunday of the ambitious proposal to address climate change, urging them to listen carefully to the debate and question the promises being made by candidates. “I share the energy of people who are behind the Green New Deal and I think climate change is an existential threat, but I want to do something about it. I don’t just want to talk about it.”
Delaney is far from a firebrand and speaks more about policy than many other 2020 candidates. He has a plan for infrastructure reform, wants to double the Earned Income Tax Credit and says, as president, that he would have breakfast with a member of Congress every day. His wealthy persona also belies his past: Born in 1963, Delaney was raised in a working class, union household in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, and was only able to afford college with a scholarship from his father’s labor union, IBEW Local 164.
Delaney, after studying at Columbia University and Georgetown University Law Center, would go on to found two publicly traded companies and represent the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., in Congress for three terms. Those experiences, in many ways, have obscured Delaney’s blue-collar roots, making him appear more Brooks Brothers than Carhartt.
“I think we probably could do better (at explaining that), to be honest with you,” Delaney said recently about his personal story. “For someone who, in many ways, is from the other side of the tracks and has to fight for everything I have gotten, you learn to be as professional as possible because that is what you have to do.”
The question for Delaney and his team of 50 campaign staffers (24 in Iowa and 7 in New Hampshire) is whether anyone is listening. The former congressman is getting considerable attention from local press when he visits different areas of Iowa. But on the national stage, Delaney has so far struggled for visibility in the 2020 race.
Delaney drew attention after comparing the likelihood of passing a sweeping Green New Deal, as currently written, to Mexico agreeing to pay for Trump’s border wall and when he said Democratic candidates are making a mistake by promising voters the moon.
“The most important thing for a president to do is to be honest,” Delaney said. “If you’re not honest about the problem, it’s very hard to be honest about the solution. And what that happens, you don’t get anything done.”
But even the accolades can be stinging, like this headline from a conservative column in the Washington Post, calling him: “The smartest presidential candidate you’ve never heard of.”
One issue Delaney, and a number of other candidates, has confronted is being an older white male in a party that craves youth and diversity.
Although Delaney says that he doesn’t believe demographics will be the “sole criteria by which people make decisions” about 2020, he does acknowledge that it’s one way where he doesn’t stand out.
“If I was running as a middle-aged white guy 30 years ago, I would have an advantage. Today, I don’t, right?” Delaney said. “As the father of four daughters, I’m really excited that at least the Democratic Party is at a point in its history where you don’t get an advantage for being a white male, but you have to earn it.”
Even with all of those headwinds, Delaney’s unique run comes with a number of positives.
Delaney is almost entirely self-funding his campaign. While he is soliciting some donations, the former business executive is turning to his personal fortune to hire staff, book TV time and rent space in towns across the country for campaign offices.
Delaney is also well aware that it’s a distinct benefit to him.
“I can say to my campaign team, ‘Let’s sign the leases for six offices in Iowa, I am good for them,’” he said.
But other candidates, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have decried self-funding, something Delaney calls short-sighted.
“I don’t think they are right about that,” Delaney said. “I think if you have enjoyed some financial success, which I have, and you want to invest It in trying to make the country a better place, which I do (you should be able to). I think at the end of the day, the American people love people who are successful.”
The money has also bought name recognition through TV ads. Delaney’s name frequently comes up in conversations with early-state voters – in part because he visits so often and is currently running witty television ads about bipartisanship.
“John Delaney said a dirty word in Davenport then repeated it in Des Moines and Sioux City, too. In fact, he’s been saying it all across this state, unabashedly telling people he’s a firm believer in, well, bipartisanship,” his ad says. “It might be a dirty word in Washington, but it seems to be awfully refreshing right here in Iowa.”
Delaney has a theory of the case. It remains to be seen, however, how a message of bipartisanship resonates in a Democratic primary or if a middle lane even exists in such a crowded field.