The Curious Case of Perry Johnson
Plus: What does one eat at the Iowa State Fair?
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, The Bulwark’s twice-weekly guide to Congress, campaigns, and the way Washington works. Tuesday editions of Press Pass are always free, but make sure to sign up so you don’t miss out on the Thursday editions, where we really let loose.
Today’s Press Pass is all candidates and carbs. First, a look at the presidential candidate variant with zero political experience and nearly unlimited time and funds. I encountered some of them in Iowa last week—some you’ve heard of, some you probably haven’t. Then stay tuned for my report on the food offered at the Iowa State Fair.
Found a new type of guy
After his Fair-Side Chat with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, businessman-turned-presidential candidate Perry Johnson greeted a man in the audience, who shook his hand and said, “Hi, I’m E.W. Jackson. I’m also a candidate for president.” Johnson gave a split second pause and a brief look of discomfiture before sharing a few words about the role of God in government, and moving on to talk to the rest of the crowd.
Jackson is a perennial candidate for office, often in Virginia, and always without success on election day. He apparently likes running for office and has done so in multiple statewide races over the years.
At the Iowa State Fair last week, Jackson went to get a feel for the crowd, bringing along with him an aide and two individuals cosplaying as a security detail. They both wore shades and those clear, coiled earpieces everyone associates with the Secret Service. They never stopped scanning nearby fairgoers either, and even gave the impression they were creating some kind of perimeter around the event—except of course in the areas where Iowa state troopers were doing the same thing for real on behalf of the governor. Later in the day, while I was watching former Texas Congressman Will Hurd’s Des Moines Register soapbox speech, I spotted Jackson talking to the man running the soundboard. Jackson was requesting to give a speech of his own. At one point, one of his personal guards attempted to pass an info-card about the Jackson campaign to the person actually in charge of the program. Jackson never got on stage.
As for Perry Johnson, he tends to get worked up during his speeches and campaign appearances. More than once in his conversation with Gov. Reynolds, Johnson brought himself to the verge of tears. He also shouts, laughs, and talks about his great successes making manufacturing more efficient across scores of countries around the world. He gives every impression of really relishing campaigning.
I wondered if running for president is really as fun as Johnson makes it look, so I asked him how he’s enjoying life on the trail. “My wife considers me an adrenaline junkie,” he said.
“This is my life,” Johnson added. “I'm used to this kind of life. I love it.”
He really wanted me to know that running for president is part of his DNA.
“And you can ask anybody that works for me and everybody that works with me,” he said. “They will tell you, this is the way I've lived my life for the last, oh, probably from the time I was 6.”
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E.W. Jackson and Perry Johnson are cut from the same cloth: They love politics, are very passionate about America’s future, and have more time and money than they know what to do with.
The same goes for several others in the Republican presidential primary field: Vivek Ramaswamy, Larry Elder, and Ryan Binkley. These are just some of the 135 Republicans, 100 Democrats, and 295 others running for president in 2024, according to the Federal Election Commission. To run for president—either seriously or for the dopamine rush—requires energy, money, and a concrete vision for the country. Lots of these candidates have the first two, but it’s up for debate on the vision part.
If this type of guy sounds familiar, you might recall a piece last year by my Bulwark colleague Jim Swift, in which he profiled his neighbor Jay Torres, one of those hundreds of people running for president.
Of course, there’s a long history of political outsiders making runs at the presidency—although only one person, Donald Trump, has succeeded in becoming president with no prior experience in public office or the military. An interesting question is whether we’ve now reached a point where such candidates will tend to do well because experience is irrelevant to voters and messaging is everything. Candidates like Jackson, Torres, and who knows who else are “running for president” but getting no traction.
One step above them, candidates like Johnson are all over the place, and maybe getting a tiny bit of mainstream attention. Johnson has reportedly been giving Newsmax money to pay attention to him; it apparently didn’t help him get onto the stage for this week’s Republican debate, although he claims he did qualify and the RNC is corruptly excluding him.)
One step higher this year is Ramaswamy, who has risen enough in the polls to make him the target of upward punches from candidates like Nikki Haley, a twice-elected governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He will be on the debate stage. (Andrew Yang—who in 2020 was more or less the Democratic version of this guy—outperformed expectations and used his success to spin off a new political party that doesn’t take positions on anything.)
Many Republican operatives I know are frustrated with Ramaswamy’s rise, giving the impression they’ve lived under a rock for the past decade.
Alyssa Farah Griffin, the Trump White House and Mark Meadows aide who is now a cohost of The View, lamented on
My Bulwark colleague Will Saletan dryly offered, “Most of this was true of Trump in 2016.”
Aside from actual votes, money remains the lifeblood of presidential campaigns. When candidates have unlimited funds to pump into their own campaigns regardless of how much support they actually have, they can stay in longer than anyone else. They can also use this to manufacture a new brand that can be spun into cabinet positions, podcast stardom, or really anything else.
Speaking of Iowa, I have a separate piece in The Bulwark today about the different foods offered at the Iowa State Fair. It’s full of pictures and my general dislike for unhealthy eating.
I have a very good diet. It’s healthy, consistent, and extremely low in sugar, carbs, and processed foods. I will go for weeks, sometimes even months on end without a single cheat meal. I’m a psycho, I know.
This is why the Iowa State Fair—an event I last covered eight years ago as a 25-year-old cub reporter on the campaign trail—presented a daunting task: What should I eat?
The state fair isn’t short on options. It’s essentially a pop-up walkable city. Iowans and other Midwesterners trek to the fairgrounds in Des Moines because on some deep-down, primal level, everyone wants a dense, walkable space with an abundance of art (the butter cow is indeed art), activities for all age groups, zero cars in sight, and diverse culinary choices.
I didn’t always eat the whole thing, but you should read the whole thing.