DES MOINES, Iowa -- With less than six months until the caucuses, Iowans expect to receive plenty of cold calls from presidential campaigns. However, getting a call from a candidate’s son is enough to stop them in their tracks.
In an office in downtown Des Moines buzzing with dozens of simultaneous conversations, campaign staffers and volunteers hover over laptop computers, updating Iowans on former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) most recent campaign events in their area. Among them, a young man in a bright blue button down shirt dials a phone number from an Excel spreadsheet, flashing a smile before putting an iPhone to his ear.
“Hello Mrs. Bell, I’m calling because my dad, Martin O’Malley is running to be the Democratic nominee for president,” he says into the phone. He pauses, then invites her to a number of events the presidential candidate will be hosting without even looking at his computer screen, an indication that he’s been at this for hours and has the schedule memorized.
“It’s usually a bit of a chuckle at first,” said William O’Malley, the presidential candidate’s teenage son, “but then they feel like they can ask me stuff about my dad that they may feel weird asking a field organizer.”
William isn’t even old enough to vote, but the 17-year-old has received some unexpected questions during those phone calls.
“One woman asked me about what my favorite bedtime story was that he read to me when I was little,” he said with a laugh.
A rising high school senior, William is spending his summer applying to colleges, but he still finds time to hit the road, traveling across the state of Iowa and visiting with voters with or without his father. Campaigning helps him connect with his father, he said, who also pounded the pavement here working for a long-shot candidate as a teenager. The former Maryland governor cut his teeth in politics in 1984, mobilizing voters in the Hawkeye State for presidential candidate Gary Hart ahead of the caucus.
“He was 19 years old and lived off nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” the younger O’Malley said. “He really just worked his butt off, living on people’s couches, he even slept in a bathtub.”
William has held a few campaign events of his own, during which he's rattled off his father’s accomplishments in Maryland and answered questions from voters, his responses at times resembling those of a political operative more than a high school student. A frequent travel companion for his father, the 17-year-old can be seen in the crowd at a number of campaign events in Iowa, lending a silent source of support.
Martin O’Malley pointed him out at a recent gathering in a Beaverdale pub. “This is William,” he said, standing on a bar stool. “He’s 17 years old and working the Iowa Caucuses,” the proud father said as the audience erupted in applause and the teenager’s cheeks gradually turned scarlet, clearly uncomfortable as the attention shifted to him.
Of course, like any teenager, William is well aware of his dad’s quirks.
“It’s kind of weird in some ways when it comes to his dad jeans and his weird music taste,” he said with a laugh. “When it comes to his qualities as a leader, I think that’s really amazing.”
Working on a campaign has its ups and downs, he said, admitting the stress has gotten to him a few times. The family has learned to adapt to all the media attention putting their every move under a microscope, he added.
“I mean, of course it’s hurtful to see untrue or negative things said about my dad,” William, who is one of four children, said. “At the same time, that’s what is to be expected. If you think you deserve to be president, you need to be out here taking hard questions, taking hits.”
The teenager's key to staying upbeat is to keep everyone working on the campaign laughing. When he's on the road with his father, they do comedy routines with one another, he said.
“One of our favorite songs in our family that me and my dad dance to is Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’,” he said with a smirk. “That’s definitely playing in our heads, and in our kitchen a lot.”
Music has played an important role in the O’Malley campaign -- the presidential candidate often breaks out in song at smaller events. The former executive of Maryland is no stranger to picking up a guitar and belting out a tune. He was known as the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Governor” and has been playing in a Celtic Rock Band named O’Malley’s March since 1988.
“O’Malley’s March is a source of pride and giggles in our family,” William said. He described an excursion to the Obama White House as a child where his father performed. “We got to meet the president and he came up to me and was like, ‘what do you think about your dad being a rocker’? I remember being kind of embarrassed,” he said.
Iowa has been a central focus of the O’Malley campaign, but that focus isn't yet reflected in the polls. In a recent Public Policy Polling survey, O’Malley’s favorability was only at 14 percent, while 25 percent of Iowa voters reported viewing him negatively. Despite his many trips to the Hawkeye State, 61 percent of voters still have not formed an opinion.
William O’Malley said the campaign isn’t paying attention to the polls. Instead, it's focusing on gaining support one voter at a time. On his most recent trip to Iowa, William collected nearly a dozen commit to caucus cards and was even personally invited to a meal on a voter’s farm in Marshalltown.
"The first thing that comes to mind when I think about my dad is that he is just a relentless guy," he said.
"Slow and steady wins the race," he added. “If there’s anyone that can win the caucuses come February and anybody that can work as hard as he can every day, it’s going to be my dad.”