The closest I ever came to meeting a presidential candidate was on a spring evening in 1968 when Sen. Robert Kennedy came to the town of Harmon, N.Y. My friends and I waited for hours in the bare-dirt lot of the Starlight Drive-In Theater until the motorcade—consisting of a sedan and a flatbed truck—pulled in. Grabbing a bullhorn, RFK climbed onto the truck. After brief remarks he shook a few hands before speeding off in a literal cloud of dust.
I thought about this recently when a friend emailed from Manhattan to say that he’d shaken hands with presidential aspirant Sen. Amy Klobuchar. I asked how he managed it. “It was easy,” he said. “I paid a thousand bucks.” Contrast that with an item in the Des Moines Register concerning a “meet and greet” Sen. Kamala Harris held at a private home. About two dozen Iowans paid only their respects.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that of 14 candidates attending the Democrats’ California convention in May, only two—Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—scheduled events for ordinary folks to attend.
A feature of modern politics is that while a voter in Manchester, N.H., has a decent shot at bumping into a presidential candidate at a local coffee shop, the closest a voter in, say, Chicago can get without paying is watching a town hall on CNN.
The layout of the primary and caucus calendar continues to erode the value of retail politics. Despite the reach of social media and cable, candidates still spend the bulk of their time on the ground in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and, most of all, Iowa.
On a single day last month, an Iowan glancing over the Des Moines Register would have noticed chances to head to the Wilson Middle School in Council Bluffs to meet Mr. Sanders, see Ms. Klobuchar at The Mill Restaurant & Bar in Iowa City, join Rep. Eric Swalwell at the Uptown Cafe in Jefferson, or schmooze with Beto O’Rourke at the Terrace Hills Golf Course in Altoona.
Former Rep. John Delaney, who has been running for president since 2017, has so far attended 179 events in Iowa. Mr. Swalwell has been to 70, Mr. O’Rourke to 55.
It’s too early to campaign for votes, so candidates are seeking coverage and money. They flock to the first four states knowing that failure to score early could spell doom. Reporters play along, because a trip to a lunch counter in Davenport makes a quaint, grass-roots story, while a visit to a similar spot in Philadelphia would be a crashing bore.
The entire campaign matrix changes if you’re the incumbent. I thought about that as I read an announcement from the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee concerning an event in Washington on June 25. For $100,000 you can get a seat at the roundtable, two VIP dinner tickets, admittance to the reception and a photo-op.
If you want a free photo with Beto O’Rourke, he’ll be in front of St. John’s Church in Independence, Iowa, at 9 a.m. July 4.
Mr. Funt is a writer and host of “Candid Camera.”