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

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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."

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.

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.

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