DES MOINES, Iowa -- It can be easy to write off politics as a cynical endeavor. But if it truly were, it couldn't break your heart.
Hundreds of supporters of Beto O'Rourke had come in from all over the country to cheer their candidate on at the big Democratic dinner, which launches the final stretch toward next February's Iowa caucuses. Sure, they knew what the polls were saying, but their hopes were telling them something else. So they stood for hours Friday along the streets of downtown Des Moines in a freezing drizzle, waving their signs at passing cars.
Looking for a chance to dry out and warm up before the big event Friday night, three Texans -- Brenda Guillen, a retired educator; Rocio Dumey, a second-grade teacher; and Elle Franklin, who does pet services -- had found seats at the bar of the Residence Inn, across the street from the Wells Fargo Arena, where the dinner was to take place. They were making small talk with a couple of O'Rourke campaign staffers when the two campaign staffers suddenly excused themselves. Something about having to jump on a conference call.
When I came across them a few minutes later, Guillen and Dumey were finishing their Moscow Mules, and Franklin was downing an IPA. All three wore cheery blue O'Rourke campaign T-shirts touting the evening's "Liberty and Justice Celebration" -- and all of them were starting to cry. Thanks to the fact that CNN was on the screen behind the bar, they had just learned that O'Rourke had dropped out of the 2020 presidential race.
All of them had come to Iowa on their own time and money. That's how important O'Rourke was to them. "Unless he's on the ticket, they're going to lose 90 percent of us," Dumey said. "I spent all these weekends volunteering and knocking on doors."
"Beto and Beto supporters have gotten nothing but contempt from the Democrats," Franklin said. "He spoke for me. He heard me."
In the hotel lobby, I found Todd O'Day, who works for Microsoft in Seattle, and Scott Braymer, who develops apps in Santa Cruz, California. They were still composed, but by the time we finished talking, they too were crying.
Last December, even before the former Texas congressman announced for president, Braymer had founded an organization he called Envoys for Beto through Facebook. He says it now has hundreds of members who help organize events for O'Rourke. "I put my whole life on hold, and [went] into major debt to do it," Braymer said. "I figured he was a new paradigm in politics." Sure, some people thought it was goofy that O'Rourke livestreamed so much of his life, but Braymer liked the "radical transparency."
O'Day says that on top of holding a full-time job at Microsoft, he was working four hours every night for O'Rourke. I asked him whether there is anyone else in the field he might support. He paused a moment. "I rode a plane in yesterday with Amy," he said, referring to another long shot] candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "I don't know. I'd have to think about it. I like Amy."
Then everyone headed out into the rain again. Word was, Beto was going to appear shortly outside the hall where they had expected to cheer his speech tonight. They all wanted to have one last chance to see him.