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Opinion

The Benefits of Presidential Campaigning on the Personal Level

Actually talking with voters helps candidates understand the challenges faced by everyday Americans.

July 25, 2019

At a moment when American democracy is reeling like a punch-drunk fighter, can we take a moment to revel in the selfie line?

At the end of town meetings in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, most 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, from Elizabeth Warren to Beto O'Rourke, stick around to pose for selfies and a brief chat with everyone with the patience to wait their turn. Of course, this is not much different than the handshakes and Instamatic photographs from earlier campaign years. But what is telling is that tradition endures even though the name has changed.

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign fostered the impression that, in the future, all candidate events in both parties would be held in vast basketball arenas with individual voters reduced to cheering and chanting throngs. Even the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primary races — with superstar candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — played out far more often in high-school gyms and other large venues rather than in New Hampshire backyards.

That is why it is so bracing that personal campaigning is alive and well in the early 2020 caucus and primary states. Part of the explanation is that with a wide-open race and two dozen candidates, the clamor for backyards for political events is heavy. Also, none of the candidates are yet bubble-wrapped with Secret Service protection that invariably distances the voters. The result is that anyone who wants to talk briefly with a would-be president need only show up in one of the early states, particularly Iowa or New Hampshire.

The largest benefits of personal campaigning extend to the candidates themselves. It would be easy in a country of 325 million for presidential contenders to view the United States as mostly “flyover country.” During the national campaign, which will start immediately after the early primaries, candidates are whisked from major airport to major airport stopping only to do mass rallies and made-for-TV events with small groups of photogenic voters.

But if any Democrat makes it to the White House in 2020, he or she will always have strong memories of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The model remains John F. Kennedy, who as president made a determined effort to bring progress to Appalachia because he was haunted by memories of rural poverty that he encountered for the first time while campaigning in the 1960 West Virginia primary.

Take California senator Kamala Harris as a 2020 example. By her own admission, she had never even been to Iowa before she came to the Hawkeye State to campaign for Obama in 2007. But in early August, she will embark on a five-day bus trip across Iowa from the Missouri to the Mississippi Rivers. And win or lose, vivid memories of dying rural communities in the heartland will be imprinted on Harris’s political psyche.

In theory, the prominence given to small early states like Iowa and New Hampshire seems like a comic affront to democracy.

In every recent presidential cycle, voters in the same four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) have played an exaggerated role in choosing the nominees in both parties. This time around, these states (with a total population of about 12.7 million) will be the only ones choosing delegates during the opening-gun month of February 2020. In contrast, 14 states, including electoral behemoths California and Texas, will hold primaries on a single day, March 3.

Adding another wrinkle to the equation: Iowa and New Hampshire both are more than 85 percent white, a demographic lack of diversity equaled by only four other states. However, it does help a bit that South Carolina is 27 percent African American (and these Black voters can add up to nearly 60 percent of Democratic primary turnout) and the Latino population of Nevada is 29 percent.

These objections to the current primary calendar might be persuasive until you watch Joe Biden answering questions under a light springtime mist in a Nashua, New Hampshire, backyard. Or see Pete Buttigieg speak from a back porch to 250 rapt Iowa Democrats on a sparkling Saturday morning in Des Moines. Or marvel at the mixture of politics and 4,000 pounds of fried whiting as almost all the Democratic presidential candidates speak, handshake, and swelter at Congressman Jim Clyburn’s outdoor fish fry in Columbia, South Carolina.

At moments like this I feel like I have stepped into a Frank Capra movie from the 1930s or a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post. This is the way that democracy is supposed to work as the men and women who dream of governing this mighty but deeply troubled nation make their pitch one voter at a time. And for a little while, it is enough to make me forget the ugly, divisive campaign sure to follow in the fall of 2020.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Alex Wong / Getty)