Imagine what it would be like to watch American Idol, except every week you would get to meet all the contestants in person before voting for any of them. That’s what it’s like to be a political junkie living near an early primary state like Iowa.
This year, I had the unique opportunity of meeting (or seeing up close) nearly every candidate running for president, fifteen in total (and a couple presidents). After discovering how accessible some of the candidates were, I made it part of my job as marketing manager at the Pope Paul VI Institute to give each one a copy of our Director’s new book, An Insider’s Look at the War on Women. This gave me a reason to leave the office and meet up with candidates during the workday or whenever they happened to be in town.
As I got to meet the different candidates, I found it interesting that I’d see the same people at many of these events — regardless of party affiliation. My guess is that they’re “fellow travelers” like me who enjoy seeing these news makers up close and personal (though some may also be collecting autographs to sell on eBay, which I’ve discovered is quite lucrative). Below are my impressions of each of the candidates in the order in which I met them. (All pictures were taken by me, of course.)
Marco Rubio: I got to meet Rubio three times during his primary campaign, and he’s still the candidate I like the best. At every event, he began with a brief stump speech given without any notes or teleprompter. Then he would take unscreened questions from the audience, always giving thoughtful and detailed answers. He also stayed and greeted every single person who wanted to meet him at each event, staying until the last person left. This is no small feat when you have multiple events each day and no control over how many people will show up. I don’t even agree with him on every issue, but I found Rubio to be the most likable of all the candidates, and I would love to see him debate Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders).
Scott Walker: I’ve been following the Wisconsin Governor since his battles with Union thugs got national attention a few years ago. In person, he seemed very much like Governor Guy-Next-Door, very friendly with everyone and not letting things like death threats against his family dampen his “aw shucks” demeanor. He dropped out surprisingly early, and I feel it’s because he wasn’t nearly the hard-nosed fighter on the debate stage that the Republican voters were looking for. He was one of my personal favorites, and I was sorry to see him go so early.
Ben Carson: Ben Carson’s Family Festival in Bayliss Park was by far the most fun campaign event of the year. There were activities for kids, free corn on the cob, an appearance by Mary Rice Hopkins, and live music by an oldies cover band. It was one big party. The Doctor impressed me as well, giving a one-hour unscripted speech, having an hour of meet-and-greet time, and then having another hour of unfiltered Q&A, all in the hot sun without a single bathroom break. He also has the softest hands of anyone I’ve ever met. As a candidate, however, I felt he was way too “green” and far too nice to run for President. He got tripped up by basic things during the Q&A, such as advocating for a flat tax that would eliminate all tax exemptions, but then proposing tax-free health savings accounts (pointed out by an attendee). I watched his bio-pic on Netflix shortly after the event and was impressed with his life story, but I felt Dr. Carson would make a much better Surgeon General than a President.
Rick Perry: I got to meet Gov. Perry at the very end of his campaign. The man seemed tired and beaten at the time, and his event didn’t seem to have any media present to cover his appearance (aside from KFAB’s Chris Baker, who introduced him). He stayed upbeat and had a good back-and-forth with the handful of people who came to see him and ask questions. He brought up one point that I’m surprised hasn’t come up before: he’s the only candidate running for president who had any meaningful military experience (aside from Jim Gilmore, who most people forget is running). This would have been a huge issue in the past for anyone running for commander-in-chief, but now gets barely any notice, even in the midst of fighting a war with ISIS. He seemed like a great candidate on paper, but having run once for president already, it seemed like his time had past.
Bobby Jindal: Gov. Jindal was one of the friendliest candidates I’d met, not only greeting everyone who came to see him, but having extended, personal conversations with each person. Two key points he and his advocates seemed to repeat were that he was the only candidate to “shrink the size of government,” and that he also intended to repeal Obamacare and not replace it with something similar. One disappointment, however, was that his entire campaign seemed to be pushed by the Believe Again PAC, which it made me wonder who was actually funding his campaign. I hoped to see more of him down the road.
Chris Christie: Gov. Christie seems to prefer hosting town-hall style Q&As packed into tiny venues like the tiny Glory Days bar and grill or the Quaker Steak and Lube in Council Bluffs. He took several tough questions from the audience on topics like the “Bridge-gate” scandal and an EPA lawsuit, and he answered them directly without any sugar-coating. I wish Christie and other candidates would pick venues that would accommodate more people, but I’m guessing lower-tier candidates prefer tiny places that look much more crowded with only a handful of visitors (like the local Village Inn).
Rand Paul: Sen. Paul reminded me of Mr. Spock — cool, logical, and unemotional. He’s the most libertarian of the candidates, embracing free trade and medicinal marijuana while eschewing metadata collection without a warrant, differentiating himself from more “hawkish” candidates like Rubio and Santorum. His first event started off with the “picture line” so schlubs like me can get that obligatory selfie before his stump speech instead of rushing the stage afterward. He also seemed the most introverted of the candidates, and he didn’t seem to enjoy the whole experience of campaigning for President as some others did. I think I agreed with him on more issues than any other candidate, but he didn’t have the likeable charisma of a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.
Carly Fiorina: Mrs. Fiorina impressed me as a very knowledgeable candidate despite never having held office before. At her first event, a Veterans’ Town Hall, she took only a few screened questions and had no official meet-and-greet time, though I approached her after her talk without any trouble. She made a second appearance at a Town Hall at Dixie Quicks, where she got to meet my daughter Hannah and took several unscreened questions from the group gathered there. She has several talking points that she tends to repeat whenever she speaks, such as making two calls on her first day in office (to her “good friend” B.B. Netanyahu and the Supreme Leader of Iran) and implementing “zero-based budgeting” to move, examine, and cut any dollar. She’s not my first pick for president, but she has a great presence on the campaign, and I would love to see her debate Hillary Clinton.
Mike Huckabee: I got to see Gov. Huckabee at a forum hosted by Dr. Mark Christian of the Global Faith Institute and moderated by Scott Voorhees of KFAB. He answered a handful of screened questions from the audience, but he had no meet-and-greet time afterward, aside from shaking a few hands on the stage before walking off. It wasn’t an official campaign event or a town hall, but I still got to hear most of his campaign platform, and I was impressed. I’d thought of him as a socially conservative preacher type, but he knew quite a bit about the Fair Tax, foreign policy, and major issues a commander-in-chief would have to deal with.
Bernie Sanders: I believe party politics is the closest thing most democrats have to a religion, and that was definitely the case with Sanders’ rally. Those who attended were serious devotees, chanting and cheering “Feel the Bern” and “Not for sale” right on cue. What amazed me was how much common ground Sanders had with candidates like Donald Trump. They both oppose free trade with countries like China and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and they both vocally eschew special interest money (though in Trump’s case he can afford to self-finance). I disagree with most of what Sanders stands for, but he seemed to stand on specific principles rather than party labels, unlike Hillary Clinton, whose major selling point was that “the economy does better under Democrats.” Strangely enough, I found Bernie to be one of the more honest and principled politicians out there (even though I think his principles are wrong).
Donald Trump: Nobody draws a crowd like Donald Trump, and his visit to Council Bluffs was no exception. I was disappointed that the area he’d reserved at the Mid-America Center was sectioned off, very small, and had no seating whatsoever. His speech was even less impressive — some 80-minutes of bloviating on random topics, mostly about his own poll numbers. He’s also the only candidate I’ve met whose cursed, even after acknowledging children in the crowd. He did spend a good deal of time signing autographs and greeting those who were lucky enough to squeeze to the front at the end of his speech. He even signed a bobble head doll for a guy when Secret Service told him no. I expect he more than enjoys the limelight — he lives for it.
Ted Cruz: I almost didn’t get to meet Sen. Cruz. His one stop in Council Bluffs was back when I had a goodbye dinner planned for Pastor Drew, so I had to miss it. Then he came by Missouri Valley, about 30 minutes away, for a late-night 10:45 pm stop at Penny’s Diner. I was dead tired the next day, but I’m very glad I went. The place was packed with about 200 people, and Cruz made sure to meet and greet everyone in the place before he left. He reminded me of Marco Rubio, but much more combative and less likely to work with the other side, which is either a plus or minus depending on your viewpoint.
Hillary Clinton: What can I say about the former First Lady? She’s been in the headlines for decades, and her career and life have been public record and the topic of countless books after she and Bill were jointly elected in 1992. She covered the usual democrat talking points, and I felt quite eager to see someone like Rubio or Cruz grind her to pieces in a debate. She also seemed to be a bit of a diva, showing up forty minutes late, refusing to sign autographs, and insisting on holding people’s cell phones when they took a selfie with her. The crowd was an interesting mix of supporters and people I recognized from rallies for Republican candidates, and the supporters in the room were very subdued compared to the cultist fervor that Bernie Sanders’ supporters had. While I disagree with pretty much everything Mrs. Clinton stands for, she takes a better picture than nearly any other candidate I’ve met, likely because she’s spent most of her adult life in the media spotlight.
Rick Santorum: I got to meet Sen. Santorum when he visited my workplace back in March 2015. He hadn’t even announced his candidacy yet, but he told people here that it was apparently a “done deal.” I decided to meet him again when he hosted a House Party in Council Bluffs in mid-January. Despite winning several primary elections in 2012, he’s been in the bottom of all the polls this season, having been labeled an “also-ran.” He ran a very modest campaign consisting of house party appearances and town halls at local Pizza Ranch restaurants. He would even spend the night at people’s homes rather than spend money on a hotel room. This allowed him to continue his campaign long after others like Jindal, Perry, and Walker had dropped out. He’s more “hawkish” on issues like collecting metadata without a warrant, unlike his more libertarian opponents, and his talk focused more on foreign policy than I expected from a candidate best known for being a social conservative. He’s also a serious Catholic, and after his house party he retreated to a bedroom in the house for private prayer with his campaign staff. I respect that.
John Kasich: Kasich has been on my radar since the Republican revolution in the 90s, and my parents got to meet him during his brief run for president in 2000. This time around, Kasich was focused very much on his “record,” i.e. his years spent in congress on various committees and working to balance the budget. He’s a moderate candidate and rejected ideas like Ted Cruz’ plan for a 10% flat tax in favor of a “simplified” tax code with three brackets that he thought would have a better chance of passing. He’s a bit out of place in the current political climate, having started in congress in the days when Phil Gramm was a democrat and he could easily “reach across the aisle” to work with the other side. Both parties are more polarized more than ever, and someone like him is seen as a “RINO” by a beaten GOP that is sick of getting stepped on by the left and wants a fighter on their side.