At some point in the middle of the breathless Beto O’Rourke coverage last week, a tweet floated by my screen reminding me that the former Congressman completed a rare feat during his ill-fated 2018 campaign.
He visited every county in the state of Texas.
Ah, counties. Those mysterious local units of government that you must be familiar with if you want to obtain a copy of your birth certificate or know where a tornado is headed. They may not be totally relevant in our modern world, but they matter in political campaigns.
After all, they call them counties because politicians like to count how many of them they’ve been to.
Visiting every county in the state is not abnormal here in Indiana, where statewide candidates and officeholders visit all 92 counties on a regular basis. Most recently, Joe Donnelly touted visiting everything from Adams to Whitley for his last five years in the Senate. In Texas, where they say everything is bigger, hitting all 254 counties is not the norm.
But the reminder about Beto’s campaign made us wonder if he — or any candidate, because we’re really tired of typing “Beto” — could possibly visit every county in the United States during a run for president?
We here at Indiana explained did the math so you don’t have to.
First, the basics. There are 3,142 counties or county equivalents in the U.S.
Before we go any further, I want to point out the most common county name in America is Washington County. Of course it is! But there are only 31 Washington Counties in the U.S. Thirty-one! We’ll give Washington state a pass, but how did 18 other states decide against naming a county after the first president? Like, New Mexico has a county named after Warren G. Harding, but not Washington? They might as well just call it Teapot Dome County and get it over with.
As I was saying. 3,142 counties. But 34 of those are in Alaska and Hawaii. And though we love those states, they aren’t so easy to get to or get around, so we’ll give our theoretical candidate a pass on visiting those.
We’re also assuming our candidate wins their party’s nomination. We’re going to need all the days we’ve got.
How long does it take to visit a county?
Beto launched his campaign on March 31, 2017, in El Paso and visited his 254th county on June 9, 2018, when he hit Gainesville, TX in Cooke County. That’s 254 counties in 436 days — a very pedestrian pace of four counties per week. At that rate, you’d have to be campaigning for president for 14.6 years to catch ‘em all. That’s longer than Pete Buttigieg has been alive!
On the other extreme, there’s a hobby known as “county collecting” where insane people try to visit as many counties as possible, often as quickly as they can. Someone once visited all 88 counties in Ohio in 23 hours, 34 minutes, and 34 seconds.
That’s an average of 16 minutes for every county, which, if you ask me, is too long to be in any Ohio county that doesn’t contain a King’s Island.
But if you extrapolate out that pace, you’d hit every county in the continental U.S. in about 35 days. Richard Ojeda, who was in the race for 75 days from November to January, could’ve visited them all twice!
But I think a more acceptable pace would look like my day last Tuesday. I had meetings in five Indiana counties. That does not include my home county, or counties where I stopped for an emergency pee break (though I did do that in the aptly named Rush County).
A candidate who visits 5 counties a day every day would be able to collect every county in the continental U.S. in 622 days. That means you’d have to start on or before February 20, 2019.
At least 10 candidates declared that early for 2020. Of course, we’re not suggesting that five counties a day is a sustainable model. There are a million things working against you, like fundraising and media demands, day jobs for sitting elected officials, the primary calendar, and of course the fact that a lot more goes into planning and executing a campaign event than me driving from meeting to meeting in my Pontiac.
And yet, the scientists say it can be done!
But the Betos of the world who read this post and think this might be the right strategy for them might want to remember the famous words of Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Most experts agree Beto’s 254-county strategy didn’t yield many results. He won 25.6 percent of the state’s rural vote in 2018. Two years earlier, Hillary Clinton won 24.3 percent.
Voters want to see a candidate. In places like Iowa, they might even expect it. But visiting a county is no substitute for representing the values of its constituents.