‘We’ve never seen a campaign start this early, ever’

 In Politics

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The first presidential contests of 2020 are nearly two years away, but for one Democrat the campaign is already in full swing. John Delaney — a wealthy, little-known congressman from Maryland — has spent more than $1 million on TV in Iowa, hired staffers and opened a campaign office in Des Moines.

Since announcing his bid last July, he’s made 110 campaign stops in 48 of Iowa’s 99 counties. He has visited New Hampshire six times, and on Friday made his second trek to South Carolina.

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“We’ve never seen a campaign start this early, ever,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

While higher-profile Democrats remain coy about their intentions, Delaney is unabashedly in. But in his massive investment of time and resources — his Iowa TV buy marks the earliest significant paid advertising from a presidential candidate in memory — he is testing the limits of a virtually unknown politician’s ability to gain early-state traction by starting first and spending heavily.

“What is Delaney running for?” Stuart Sprague, a local Democratic Party official in South Carolina asked the staffer behind a booth where Delaney’s campaign plied activists with yogurt-coated pretzels at a state party fundraiser here.

Told that he was running for president, Sprague gulped, “Of the United States?” He added, “Who is John Delaney?”

The odds confronting Delaney are enormous. The Democratic field is shaping up to be historically large — and it’s likely to be filled with some of the party’s biggest stars — while the former banker is barely known outside his home state.

He runs so far under the radar that his name has not even been included in many early national polls. In the latest Granite State Poll, in February, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, Delaney registered at less than 1 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. That ranked behind every major prospective candidate, and also “other,” at 4 percent.

Still, Delaney runs undeterred.

“I think I’m the right person for the job, and I have the right vision, but not enough people know who I am,” Delaney, 55, said before arriving in South Carolina. “The way you solve that problem is by getting in early.”

Delaney added, “I think I’m going to win.”

In his TV advertisements, Delaney first introduced Iowans to his blue-collar upbringing and business and government credentials, while pledging to usher in a new era of bipartisanship. This month, he went up with a more pointed ad criticizing President Donald Trump’s decision to set new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, saying “his trade war could devastate our manufacturing and farming economies and raise prices on hard-working Americans.”

Iowa media markets are so inexpensive that by spending more than $1 million on television, Delaney has mustered significant reach. Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist who hosted an event for Delaney at his house in March, said that when he asked people whether they were coming, many told him, “Oh, that’s the guy on TV.”

In Iowa, Link said, $1 million “goes a long way.”

“I think getting here early is helpful in that people get to see you a couple of times,” he said. “He’s a smart guy; he’s a very serious guy. … And, he has a good message.”

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