DES MOINES, Iowa – Every four years, presidential candidates show up in Iowa and act like your neediest Tinder match.
“Hey, girl. You’re gorgeous. I’m not from here, but I know what you need. Meet me for coffee Sunday morning? Or I’ll be at a high school gym later that afternoon. Oh, you’d prefer not to leave your house? I’ll come over and tell you about myself.”
Iowa responds with months of keeping it casual, before finally picking one to be the answer to all its problems – only to see them leave town and set their sights somewhere else.
Behind the scenes of this great American courtship ritual, it’s fitting that campaign staffers are also looking for that special someone. In the nerdy, stressful version of adult summer camp that is the presidential race, driven and idealistic young people bond while knocking on voters’ doors during the day and kicking back over cheap beers late at night – so it’s no wonder they fall for one another. And yes, make some passionate mistakes they’d rather forget.
Among the lasting love stories: A 2004 John Kerry staffer who picked up a Howard Dean staffer in a Des Moines karaoke bar by saying: “My dad has a hot tub.” (They’re married with three kids now.) A New Hampshire staffer for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign who nursed a secret crush on a co-worker, until he clumsily blurted out to her: “I’m feeling something here and just needed to tell you.” (They’re married with a kid, and he’s now a top aide on Biden’s 2020 campaign.) A 2000 George W. Bush campaign adviser who met a fellow Bush adviser who later ran for president himself. (That’s Heidi and Ted Cruz.)
Fooling around might actually be important. In her book about the 2016 election, Democratic Party honcho Donna Brazile notes an old campaign rule from former congressman Tony Coelho, who believed that if a staff is hooking up, it’s a sign a campaign is strong: “Are they having sex? Are they having fun?” Coelho asked her. “If not, let’s create something to get that going, or otherwise we’re not going to win.”
Many campaign couples meet as field organizers or while doing advance work, as both jobs are typically held by recent college grads working in small offices in remote towns they’ve never been before. It gets lonely, fast. In 2008, organizers all around Iowa would drive to Des Moines to find other campaign staffers who could relate. Now, Tinder or Bumble can find them someone nearby.
This fall, Claire Goldberg was one of those isolated and exhausted organizers, desperate to meet someone her own age. For months, the 22-year-old had been in southeastern Iowa, calling and meeting with voters mostly in their 60s and beyond, trying to persuade them to caucus for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. On Bumble, Goldberg matched with someone she recognized from campaign events: a 29-year-old organizer for former vice president Joe Biden.
But when Goldberg and her date met at a bar in Fort Madison, he greeted her without a handshake or a hug, then recited his life story for 30 minutes before badgering her about how long Harris might remain in the race. He then spent the rest of the date trying to convince the bartender to caucus for Biden. “Joe Biden is a much better man than this guy will ever be,” she says.
The locals also get in on the action, as their state suddenly becomes saturated with young, unattached newbies. Catie Wiltanger, a politically curious 20-year-old student at Drake University in Des Moines, has attended campaign events for nearly every Democrat in the race and often spies cute staffers but can’t tell if they’re single, or if they date women – until she sees them on Tinder or Bumble.
In the fall, Wiltanger went out with a Harris staffer whom she found “kind of pretentious.” During the date, he joked that he could pull out one of his commit-to-caucus cards for her to sign. But politics has disrupted her love life: Once she started volunteering for Harris, he said he couldn’t date her anymore because it was against the rules. Now she’s volunteering for the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; when she matched with a Warren staffer, he told her the same thing. They settled for following each other on Twitter.
Des Moines singles say campaign workers tend not to advertise their occupation or post candidate selfies on their dating app profiles because that would be a dead-giveaway that they’re only around till February. But a lack of photos set in Iowa usually gives it away.
Of course, if staffers from different campaigns are canoodling, there are concerns they could share campaign strategy or data with one another. Grant Woodard, a deputy field director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid, recalls how the campaign had to fire an Iowa field organizer for, among other reasons, sleeping with an Obama organizer and sharing the Clinton plan for the region.
But with so many candidates this cycle, it’s hard to avoid dating someone attached to another campaign. Early this month, Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, endorsed Biden for president; she also happens to be engaged to Warren’s Iowa political director, Daniel Wasta. (Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Vanessa Valdivia, 31, who held a communications role on the now-defunct campaign of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., says a cross-campaign relationship has been easier than expected. Her boyfriend of four years, Chris Meagher, 37, is Pete Buttigieg’s press secretary. Of course, there were things they couldn’t share with each other, and they spent a lot of time apart, but they understand each other. “This work is really, really difficult,” Valdivia says. “It’s a certain kind of person who gets it.” The day Booker dropped out, Meagher tweeted that he was “so bummed” by the news, adding how proud he was of Valdivia. “I’ve been in relationships with people who don’t work in politics, and it’s really hard to feel the same support,” Valdivia added.
Booker is also in a long-distance relationship (with actor Rosario Dawson) and Valdivia says he has asked for tips on how to feel close. Valdivia recommended watching a TV show together while on FaceTime, as she and Meagher have done with “Ozark” and “Big Little Lies.”
For some split-campaign couples, spending time “together” means they’re making voter calls at the same time – one person in the bedroom while the other is downstairs. This was the case for Brent and Kristie Welder, who met when Brent was working for Kerry and Kristie was on the Dean campaign. “Back then, it was more controversial to date someone on a rival campaign than it was to date a Republican,” Kristie recalls. After the Iowa caucuses, Brent was dispatched to Michigan – and though they’d only been dating a short while, they set off together and have been a couple ever since.
In the moment, it’s hard to tell where a flirtation might lead. Being deep in the trenches with someone “can trick you into thinking you have a connection that you don’t,” says Zaina Javaid, 32, who worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Javaid is now engaged to her campaign fling, but she’s seen enough connections fizzle to know that she and her fiance are among the lucky ones.
Working on a presidential campaign “gives you this elevated sense of self,” Javaid says, which can be very attractive. “You’re doing something huge and you have this self-confidence … that you may not have in your everyday life.”
When Goldberg saw that elevated sense of self in her Biden-loving Bumble date, it was a turnoff. Some of her friends are dating people they met through Democratic campaigns, but in Goldberg’s opinion, “campaigns do more damage to relationships than they do good.” When she started on the Harris campaign, she had a boyfriend in Philadelphia – soon, the distance plus her long hours pushed them to break up.
But just having similar views and translating them into action can bring couples closer. When Ryan Bruner met his now-girlfriend on Hinge (the dating app where Buttigieg met his husband, Chasten), he noticed her profile had “this sexy photo of herself getting kicked out of a Trump rally.” Bruner, 30, was supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016, but now he and his girlfriend are both volunteering for Warren – though he’s in Des Moines and she’s in Iowa City. “When I’m canvassing or when I’m volunteering, I feel closer to her because we’re doing the same [thing],” Bruner recalled in a downtown Des Moines coffee shop. If she’s knocked on more doors than he has, he feels inspired to get back out there and keep up.
That coffee shop is not far from Carl’s Place, a dive bar where many bleary-eyed campaigners have fumbled their way into each other’s arms. The drinks are cheap, and college banners cover holes in the ceiling. The jukebox plays campaign walk-up songs on repeat: If Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” is blaring, there are probably Warren folks around. The bar’s walls are covered in your typical “Whitney + Travis” scrawls, but also a reference to Buttigieg’s fundraisers in “wine caves,” and “‘Nothing will fundamentally change’ – Joe Biden.”
A couple who met during Clinton’s 2016 campaign are here on a recent Thursday night – they used to work for Harris together and now one works for Warren. The next night, a local preschool teacher says she dated a man on the Booker campaign. She liked him, even though he could rarely meet up before 9 or 10 p.m. and, shhh, her politics lean more toward Buttigieg. After Booker dropped out, he texted to say that he was on to Chicago for a job interview.
But it’s hard to spot those first sparks flying in person. Sanders’s staffers are known to frequent a dark, worn-in martini bar downtown called the Lift, but not on a Saturday night in mid-January. (Bartenders say they tip well but not as well as the Yang Gang.) At Carl’s a couple of nights earlier, when asked about their love lives, a few former Harris and Booker staffers’ anguished faces hint that, yes, they have past hookups and heartbreaks, but they’re not gabbing about them. Warren organizers making calls at a cafe one afternoon wouldn’t talk without their press team’s permission. According to Bruner, the Warren staffers are likely to be in bed early so they can knock on doors the next morning. A barista at a hipster coffee shop downtown says: Oh yeah, campaign staffers are always in there, asking for her number. “They’re so horny!” she adds.
After 1 a.m. Saturday at the Beechwood Lounge, with the scent of cigarette smoke thick in the air, a 30-something Biden volunteer in town from South Carolina wonders aloud why so many millennials are single and lonely. Why can’t we figure this out, he asks, eyebrow arched in bewilderment.
For the same reason there are 12 candidates still in the race, Chris. The electorate likes aspects of each, but isn’t excited enough about one to go all in. They want perfection and don’t want to settle. And this isn’t even for a lifetime together – just four to eight years.