When Your Living Room Becomes A 2020 Campaign Stage, 'It's Pretty Surreal'

Apr 21, 2019
Originally published on April 21, 2019 1:33 pm

The Iowa caucuses are still nine months away, and with at least 20 Democrats either considering a run or officially declared, many of them are looking for ways to stand out in the crowded field. One tried-and-true way: show up in voters' homes.

The house party has a long tradition in the presidential primary politicking of the two early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where locals open their doors to let aspiring presidents audition in their living rooms. It's a staple of the early campaign, when many candidates can't pack larger venues.

"It's pretty surreal that you can have a candidate running for president in your living room," says Liz Adelman, who recently hosted Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at her Des Moines, Iowa, home.

Adelman is originally from outside Washington, D.C., and has lived in Iowa for about 10 years.

"We've done this before, so I kind of knew the drill of what to expect in terms of food and put everything in cabinets to hide," says Adelman, who works in public relations, with a laugh. "It doesn't normally look this clean."

Liz Adelman (left) hosted presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in her Des Moines home. Adelman says it's surreal to host a candidate in her living room.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio

Adelman was not endorsing Harris at the house party she hosted for the candidate (although Harris is among Adelman's favorite candidates). Harris was there talking about the state chapter of Emerge America and emphasizing the importance of women running for office.

"I am running for president of the United States and I am a candidate and I would love to have everybody's support, so I'm going to get that out of the way," Harris told the crowd standing on a landing at the base of Adelman's staircase.

Enjoying his rise in fame last week, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., drew a crowd estimated at 1,600 on Tuesday in Des Moines. The last time he was in Des Moines was February, when he was in a living room with a couple of dozen potential caucusgoers.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (second from right) campaigns at a house party in suburban Des Moines on Feb. 9, soon after announcing he was considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Two months later, Buttigieg drew a crowd of nearly 1,600 in Des Moines.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio

Some house parties have a guest list, while others are more of a town hall at which anyone can show up and ask questions. This month, candidate Beto O'Rourke visited six houses in Des Moines on one Saturday.

Homeowner Nathan Blake told the crowd that he and his family had just moved in and that hosting a presidential candidate hurried their unpacking.

"[I'm] really happy that all of you are here, whether you're a supporter of Beto or, just as I've been saying this week, Beto-curious," Blake told the crowd in his living room, where many were sitting cross-legged on the floor. "We only have 10 months to decide."

During the question-and-answer portion of O'Rourke's south-side Des Moines house party, Dante Powell asked him what he would do as president to ease tensions between African Americans and law enforcement.

"I was not prepared for how honest he was," Powell says. "So, I appreciated very much him going into detail the way he did and owning the inherent racism in the systems that I was asking about."

Powell says he likes O'Rourke, but he's far from picking a favorite, a feeling shared by many Iowa Democrats trying to grapple with nearly 20 declared presidential candidates.

A bed for weary candidates

House parties aren't just for Iowa's big population centers.

"We have to resort to every trick that we can," says Kurt Meyer. He lives in the small north Iowa town of Mona and is the chair of the Tri-County Democrats.

Meyer has been hosting candidates for years.

This cycle, Meyer has even had a couple of Democratic candidates spend the night at his house after they stumped in his living room.

"We have accommodations to put you up for the night, and that affords people an opportunity to not only to get to know the candidate but for us to get to know the candidate in a more informal setting," Meyer says.

With nice weather in the months ahead, expect even more Iowans to open their homes to candidates trying to become the next president.

Copyright 2019 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Presidential candidates trying to make an impression on Iowa voters will often do so from inside a stranger's home. This house party for presidential hopefuls has a long and storied tradition in the state, as Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters explains.

LIZ ADELMAN: Hello. Hello, hello, hello. Welcome.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Standing at the base of a stairwell in her Des Moines living room, Liz Adelman...

ADELMAN: Hello, everybody.

MASTERS: ...Introduces California Senator Kamala Harris.

ADELMAN: ...To have you in my living room is quite an honor.

(LAUGHTER)

MASTERS: There's snacks, soda and water - no wine. It's not even noon yet. Adelman's dog Millie (ph) wags at guests as they arrive. This mother of three and public relations professional is not endorsing Harris, although she's among her favorites running. But Adelman, like many Iowans planning to caucus, was happy to invite her into her home.

ADELMAN: We've done this before, so I kind of knew the drill of what to expect in terms of food and, you know, put everything in cabinets to hide. (Laughter) I guess it doesn't normally look this clean.

MASTERS: Adelman is originally from outside Washington, D.C., and never experienced anything like this until moving here 10 years ago.

ADELMAN: That's pretty surreal that you can have a candidate running for president in your living room.

MASTERS: It gives campaigns like Harris' an intimate and inexpensive venue to connect with voters.

KAMALA HARRIS: I am running for president of the United States, and I am a candidate. And I would love to have everyone's support, so I'm going to get that out of the way. Please, I'd love to have your support.

(LAUGHTER)

MASTERS: This house party had a guest list while others are more of a town hall, where anyone can show up and ask questions. Earlier this month, candidate Beto O'Rourke visited six separate houses on one Saturday in Des Moines. The former Texas congressman's campaign staff readied this house on the city's south side as people slowly trickled in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on in. If y'all want to come around, you can take a seat here. We can go upstairs and hang on the balcony.

MASTERS: Homeowner Nathan Blake tells the crowd he and his family had just moved in, and hosting a presidential candidate hurried their unpacking.

NATHAN BLAKE: I'm glad that we made it work - really, really happy that all of you are here, whether you're a supporter of Beto or just, as I've been saying this week, Beto-curious (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

BLAKE: ...It's really good to have you here. You know, we only have 10 months to decide.

MASTERS: O'Rourke takes questions. Among them is one from Dante Powell (ph).

DANTE POWELL: Hello, Beto. How are you doing?

BETO O'ROURKE: I'm good. How are you?

POWELL: I'm pretty chill.

MASTERS: Powell asks O'Rourke about what he would do as president to repair relationships between black people and law enforcement. After the house party, as people line up to take selfies with O'Rourke on the front lawn, I asked Powell how he felt about the response.

POWELL: I feel like I got a shockingly great answer. I was not prepared for how honest he was. So I appreciated very much him going into detail the way he did and owning the inherent racism in the systems that I was asking about.

MASTERS: Powell tells me he likes O'Rourke but he's far from picking a favorite. Many Democrats here feel the same way. They're still deciding. House parties aren't just for Iowa's big population centers.

KURT MEYER: We have to resort to every trick that we can.

MASTERS: That's Kurt Meyer. He knows a thing or two about hosting presidential house parties in his small town of Mona, near the Minnesota border. He's been doing it for years. This cycle, Meyer has even provided a bed to a couple of Democratic candidates who stumped in his living room.

MEYER: We have accommodations to put you up for the night. And that affords people an opportunity to not only get to know the candidate but for us to get to know the candidate in a more informal setting. And with nice weather in the months ahead, expect many Democrats in Iowa to open their homes for candidates so they can work to winnow one of the biggest fields Democrats have seen in recent history.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

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