DES MOINES — I was about to move to Iowa.
I knew I needed a warm winter jacket, a car with four-wheel drive and lots of notebooks. But I still felt unprepared for the actual move, and for what life would be like in the three months before the caucuses in the state that gets a huge say in who the presidential nominee will be.
So before my last flight out to Iowa, before flight out to Iowa, the one with the one-way ticket, I did what anyone would do when they were about to embark on such a journey.
I called Chris Dodd.
Mr. Dodd, the former senator from Connecticut, ran for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He wasn’t Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or even John Edwards, and he had a bit of trouble gaining traction in the field.
Mr. Dodd came in sixth in the Iowa caucuses, right behind someone named Joseph R. Biden Jr. But in a long-shot bid to do better than that, he had moved to Iowa.
When we found a mutually convenient time to talk, I was sitting on the couch in my new Des Moines apartment. Outside, it was cold but not as cold as it would be the following morning, when it was 15 degrees. “Congratulations,” Mr. Dodd said, when I told him where I was.
Then he described his temporary relocation, 12 years earlier: He took his family — his wife, Jackie, and their two young daughters, Grace and Christina — to Des Moines for about two months before the caucuses. They rented a house in West Des Moines, but he couldn’t recall how they found the house. Jackie might remember that, he said.
The press was not especially kind to Mr. Dodd about his move. “Senator Chris Dodd’s long-shot Democratic presidential campaign has a new look: It’s the Little House on the Prairie,” one article said, adding that the gambit was “either a desperate grab for attention or a clever way of ingratiating himself among Iowans.”
Another called his campaign “lacking.”
Iowa is where presidential campaigns can live or die. It’s where an unexpected victory can turn electoral fortunes around. It’s where 2020 candidates have invested tons of resources in the form of time and staff. It’s where this enormous field will possibly — finally — face a moment of reckoning. That’s why many of the candidates are here, and that’s why I’m here. And in the winter of 2007, that’s why Mr. Dodd was here, too.
That, and the complex logistics of traveling to Iowa: The real reason he and his family moved to Des Moines, Mr. Dodd said, was that it was the holiday season and it would be easier. Fewer flights back and forth. More family time. “As we’ve all learned, it’s not easy to get to Des Moines,” he said.
There were some administrative affairs. When they took Grace, who was six at the time, out of her school in Washington, there was apparently a concern about truancy. To solve it, they enrolled her in a kindergarten class in West Des Moines. (“Nice children,” he said.)
He spent Thanksgiving on a family farm in eastern Iowa. (“Right out of central casting — homemade pies and more food than you could possibly eat.”)
With Christmas approaching, his family wanted to make sure Santa Claus could find them so they put up a sign at their Connecticut house saying they were not there, because they were in Iowa. (Maybe Santa could stay to caucus?)
They put up a Christmas tree at their Iowa house. Mr. Dodd took his daughters to meet the local Santa. They saw the Nutcracker.
Most of the time, he said, he was on the road. Iowans are incredibly engaged and informed politically — something I’ve learned since I started coming here last fall. Did people know who he was when he was in Des Moines? “Not so much,” he said. “To suggest somehow that we were a crowd-stopper — no, that would be a complete exaggeration.”
But he said there were other benefits to being in the state. He knew how the local football and basketball teams were doing, for example. He felt he became more a part of the community. He went on a statewide tour with Paul Simon.
He said the political world’s fixation on Iowa was “ridiculous” but he didn’t regret temporarily relocating. “If you don’t do well in Iowa, then your campaign is over.”
Before moving, I also tried to reach Marianne Williamson, the self-help author, spiritual guru and 2020 presidential candidate. Earlier this year, she, too, relocated to Iowa, renting an apartment in Des Moines. She didn’t respond to my text, but in June, her state director at the time said the move was “about showing her commitment to the Iowa caucuses.”
In September, Kamala Harris was overheard telling a Senate colleague that she was “moving to Iowa,” adding an expletive for emphasis. Her declaration excited Iowans so much that Raygun, a popular apparel store in Des Moines, made a T-shirt with the phrase. Ms. Harris and her husband, Doug, both posed for pictures with it. She spent 15 days here in October.
Iowa residents have all manner of recommendations for me when I mention to them that I’m here for an extended period of time. One couple from Dubuque offered to host me at their home. An Uber driver told me where to eat great Lebanese food. Several people told me the coffee shop I liked actually wasn’t cool.
Mostly, though, people had thoughts on how to survive the winter.
“Bundle up and walk,” Barb Perkins, a 60-year-old from Urbandale, instructed me before an Amy Klobuchar event last Thursday night. “Get sunlight.”
“Be prepared to be indoors most of the time,” said Beatrice Silva-Salas, 53, of West Des Moines. She also warned me that it could get so cold that anyone who spent more than 10 minutes outside could die.
Mr. Dodd, who dropped out of the 2008 primary immediately after the caucuses, had some suggestions of his own, including that I find some nice bed-and-breakfasts in northeastern Iowa.
Before we hung up, he told me to keep a diary.
“In 25, 30 years,” he said, “You’ll want to read about what your time in Iowa was like.”
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