When we spoke by phone last Wednesday, he'd been campaigning there for 15 days, which he told me was the longest he'd gone without seeing his young son Oliver since Oliver was 2 or 3 years old.
Campaigning for what? President, of course.
When Mark Everson first announced his candidacy in March -- prior to the first major Republican candidate -- I had never heard of him. I came to his website, MarkForAmerica.com, the way you might approach a generic-looking can of soda that appeared in a television show. You know it's a can of soda, but what on Earth is that brand? I watched the introductory video, marveled at the honesty in his biography (like his having had an affair with a subordinate), and wrote a brief, not complimentary item.
"For a long time, regrettably, your piece was the first thing that came up" when you Googled his name, Everson told me with a laugh. He's been trying to cobble together a campaign through force of will, mostly. "A lot of it depends upon getting the word out and getting the recognition," he said. And a snarky article isn't super helpful.
In case you got sidetracked while Googling him, Everson served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. In the latter, he led the IRS and, while at the Office of Management and Budget, he was part of a group that developed the proposal for the Department of Homeland Security. When he left, he ran the Red Cross briefly before entering the private sector.
It's a more established career in public service than, say, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. Which made me want to revisit a question I've looked at before: What makes Ted Cruz or Lincoln Chafee a "real" candidate and Mark Everson just a footnote? And, more importantly, what makes Mark Everson think he might win?
I answered the second question by asking him.
"There are odds against anything of consequence," he said. He suggested that his background would be an asset. "Running the IRS is not the traditional platform for doing this," he said, "but it's actually fairly good training because you take a real beating. You get used to a lot of criticism. Nobody likes you." Makes running for president seem easy. And it allows Everson, in his estimation, to be blunt -- to talk about romantic dalliances on his Web site, for example. As he put it, "You have to approach it from an optimistic point of view." That's what he teaches Oliver, who heads off to school by answering the question, "What's today?" with, "Another great day to do my best."
All very nice. But how can he actually win? "I'm not the favorite; I'm not suggesting that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are going to cede the ground to me" -- a pause -- "any time soon, in the next few months." Given that the field is both large and flat, with the frontrunners only pulling about 10 percent in the polls, he sees an opportunity. "We were in Dubuque the other night, sitting down at a GOP county meeting, to have a sandwich with the chair and the co-chair, and they said this thing is wide open," he said. "The average American is not focused on this, so I think it's very fluid." Go to enough county meetings in Iowa -- which he's been doing regularly, bolstered by several staff including an alumnus of the insurgent David Brat campaign -- meet enough people, get enough mouths (and social media accounts) spreading the word, and who knows. He used the expression "tipping point."
He also pointed to the results of a straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where he spoke in May. He didn't come in first; Ben Carson did. He didn't come in second, either, or third. Or 7th, 8th, or 13th. He came in 14th -- a bit behind Donald Trump, but in front of Lindsey Graham.
Which leads us back to Question No. 1 -- about how one becomes one of the "real" candidates. There's a frustrating paradox at the heart of big-league politics: Obscurity and exclusion are self-reinforcing. No one has ever heard of Everson unless he goes and talks to them. So he's not included in polling, because everyone would likely say, "I've never heard of him." (Everson, who's largely self-funding at this point, hasn't done his own polling in part because he expects that result.) Being excluded from polling means that he can't possibly participate in any debates, because those look at polling to see who is viable enough to warrant being included. So no one ever gets to hear of him.
There's an added wrinkle in 2016. As one pollster pointed out to me in April, the sheer number of candidates is a disincentive to adding more. Calling voters costs money, and the longer the call, the higher the cost. Adding one more name to the list adds cost across hundreds of calls in multiple polls, so pollsters (and those hiring them) have an incentive to have a shorter list, not a longer one.
Likewise with television networks. Fox News limited its debate -- the cycle's first -- to the top 10 and then added a candidate "forum" allowing those who'd hit 1 percent in the polls. "You're backing into why what Fox is doing is such a travesty," Everson said. "At this stage, to determine a cut-off, when the race is this unsettled and no one is really focused on it, and then to say, 'we're going to cut off between 10 and 11' -- that's a very, very untoward way to thin the field." At this point, Fox would be thinning Rick Santorum and Graham as much as Mark Everson (the first letter of whose last name, by the way, is pronounced with a long E).
Neither Fox nor CNN, also a debate host, have contacted him. "They're not in the business of reaching out," Everson noted. So he just keeps talking to radio and local newspapers and whoever else will talk to him in the hopes that something somewhere will spark. Being in Iowa helps him do that ("politics is an industry here") because it also helps him get national media attention. "Look, you called, right?" he pointed out. "The media is always looking for a new window. The coverage on this has been so accelerated that your brethren is always looking for something new to say."
Everson isn't waiting for them to take the initiative. After we spoke last week, he e-mailed several updates, little optimistic indicators on his long path. For example: The Republican National Committee narrowed its online straw poll (where a long list of names is no disadvantage) down to 19 people. Everson is among them. And he's going to D.C. on Wednesday to present his case to the party leadership.
It will be another great day for him to do his best.