A wide open competitive presidential primary should be a moment of opportunity and peak political leverage for ambitious and aspiring politicians in places like Iowa. But one of the most sought-after Democrats in the first-in-the-nation caucus state isn't interested in endorsing a presidential candidate.
As the youngest of a handful of Democrats in statewide office in Iowa, state Auditor Rob Sand, who was elected in 2018, is often mentioned as a potential future U.S. Senate or gubernatorial candidate.
But despite getting courted by candidates ranging from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Sand says endorsements "barely" matter "at all."
"I think it's a bigger deal to the candidates than it is to caucusgoers," says Sand, who says his sister supports Warren and that if he endorsed another candidate, it wouldn't sway her at all.
With only a year of experience as auditor and two young kids at home, Sand says he's not interested in being tied to a presidential campaign.
"If I could snap my fingers and know that the person that I determined was the best candidate was going to somehow magically win the Iowa caucuses and become the nominee, I would take this much more seriously," Sand says. "But part of the reason the Iowa caucuses are good to have go first is because Iowans take this seriously."
Prior to becoming auditor, Sand, 37, was an assistant attorney general and led a nationwide lottery-fixing investigation. Originally from Decorah, a college town in rural northeast Iowa, Sand was elected by defeating a Republican incumbent in year that also saw Iowa's GOP governor, Kim Reynolds, win.
Sand, who's a bow hunter, hasn't offered any presidential candidates a trip to his deer stand in urban Des Moines. The city has been trying to control the deer population.
While Sand hangs out in the deer stand on a recent day, he sends some emails from his phone and checks his social media accounts. He's live-streamed his quest for a haircut while traveling in rural Iowa and tweets often about his favorite food: gas station breakfast pizza. (In Iowa it usually comes with cheese sauce, eggs and a breakfast meat like sausage or bacon.)
"You get a nice piece of breakfast pizza with some firm crust underneath, that's a really good version of breakfast on the go," Sand whispers in the deer stand.
Sand has previously pointed out before that presidential candidate and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg hasn't tried breakfast pizza from the gas station chain Casey's. During an interview with Iowa Public Radio last month, Buttigieg was asked about that challenge.
"Is that what it's going to take to get the Rob Sand endorsement?" Buttigieg asked with a chuckle.
"Organizational heft and reputations on the line"
While Sand may doubt the value of his endorsement, any edge a campaign can get matters in a field this big, said Lily Adams, communications director for California Sen. Kamala Harris' now-defunct presidential campaign. Adams was also Hillary Clinton's Iowa communications director in 2016.
Adams says campaigns want a good mix of endorsers who are not just going to be a name on a press release, but will also "put their organizational heft and reputations on the line to get out people on caucus night."
"[That's] when you are going to need everybody in that room to be advocating for you," Adams says.
While not decisive, endorsements hold some sway with caucusgoers, such as Christopher Marks, a mental health counselor.
After seeing a state lawmaker who had endorsed Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduce her at an event in suburban Des Moines last week, Marks says that support "didn't hurt" for him.
"I think it carries more weight to me than Kevin Costner coming out for Pete. This is where I live. This is where I'm from," Marks says. "These are the people that represent me. And if they say they represent her that means something to me."
After several hours in Sand's deer stand, the sun starts going down, ordinarily prime time for deer to appear.
"I endorse this location for deer to visit within the next 40 minutes," Sand whispers.
But no deer ever show up. Sand says it's proof his endorsement doesn't really matter.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We're in the final stretch to the Iowa caucuses, and the Democratic presidential campaigns are frantically organizing. They're rolling out endorsements daily. But one of the most sought-after Democrats in the state is not interested in picking a favorite. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters explains why.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Decked out head to toe in camouflage, Iowa's 37-year-old state auditor, Rob Sand, is driving his truck to his deer stand, his bow and arrows in the back. His deer stand is not in the middle of nowhere. It's in a wooded area in the heart of the state's largest city, where he lives.
ROB SAND: They want to incentivize the shooting of does because the population in Des Moines is high enough that they're trying to thin it out.
MASTERS: Sand won his statewide office in 2018, defeating a Republican incumbent. Prior to winning, he was an assistant attorney general and led a nationwide lottery-fixing investigation. Now Democratic presidential candidates, from Senators Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker, are all actively courting him. But ask Sand if endorsements matter.
SAND: Oh, man - barely, if at all.
MASTERS: Sand says for him personally, with two young kids and just starting the auditor job, he's not interested in being tied to a campaign.
SAND: If I could snap my fingers and know that the person that I determined was the best candidate was going to somehow magically win the Iowa caucuses and become the nominee, I would take this much more seriously. But part of the reason that the Iowa caucuses are good to have go first is because Iowans take this seriously.
MASTERS: He hasn't offered any presidential candidate a trip to his deer stand. Once he's climbed about 15 feet into the tree, he tells me it's time to wait.
SAND: If you see me pick my bow up, that means get ready.
MASTERS: While Sand stands in the trees, he sends some emails from his phone. He checks his social media, which he's pretty active on, from livestreaming his quest for a haircut while traveling in rural Iowa to tweeting about his favorite food - gas station breakfast pizza. Yeah, it's a thing. And he tweets about it a lot.
SAND: You get a nice piece of breakfast pizza with some firm crust underneath it. That's a really good version of breakfast on the go.
MASTERS: Sand pointed out presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has not tried breakfast pizza, which is sold at the gas station chain Casey's across the state. When I interviewed the former South Bend, Ind., mayor last month, I asked about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MASTERS: You haven't had breakfast pizza from Casey's yet. Is that true?
PETE BUTTIGIEG: Is that what it's going to take to get the Rob Sand endorsement?
MASTERS: But in a field this big, any edge a campaign can get will matter, says Lily Adams. She was the communications director for California Senator Kamala Harris' now-defunct presidential campaign. She was also Hillary Clinton's communications director during the Iowa caucuses four years ago. Adams says campaigns want a good mix of endorsers who are not just going to be a name on a press release...
LILY ADAMS: But who are going to put their organizational heft and reputations on the line to get out people on caucus night, you know, when you are going to need everybody in that room to be advocating for you.
MASTERS: Take Christopher Marks, for example. The mental health counselor showed up to see Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at a barn in suburban Des Moines earlier this month. A state lawmaker who endorsed Klobuchar introduced her that night. When I asked Marks if that backing helped persuade him at all, he said celebrity endorsements don't matter, but...
CHRISTOPHER MARKS: I think it carries more weight to me than Kevin Costner coming out for Pete. I mean, that's just where I live. This is where I'm from. These are the people that represent me. And if they say they represent her, that means something to me.
MASTERS: Back in Rob Sand's deer stand, the sun is going down, and it's prime time for deer to appear. He leans over to me.
SAND: I endorse this location for deer to visit within the next 40 minutes.
MASTERS: But no deer ever show up, and Sand points out it's proof his endorsement doesn't really matter.
For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.