Watch CBSN Live

Is this the airport gate where the next president will be chosen?

Chicago — Here's a way that political reporters can measure the staying power of a potential presidential nominee and whether they're connecting with the masses: Observe them in a major hub airport. These days, it's best to catch them at the G Gates at O'Hare International.

Consider one Friday afternoon this past July, when candidates were heading to eastern Iowa for back-to-back appearances at the Progress Iowa Corn Feed in Cedar Rapids — one of the dozens of mostly weekend must-attend early primary state stops that has transformed this cycle's Democratic presidential pack into even more of a traveling circus. 

Two presidential contenders sat down to catch up quietly at a sports bar at the entrance to the G Gates. It's a narrower concourse within one of the world's busiest airports, where American Airlines commuter jets come from and go to cities like Manhattan, Kansas; Burlington, Vermont — and Cedar Rapids, site of the Corn Feed. (Nobody was fed corn. Presidential candidates just fed the crowd one-liners. But no matter.)

About a half hour before squeezing aboard an Embraer 140 jet to Cedar Rapids, former housing secretary Julián Castro sat stirring an iced tea with sweetener — his campaign trail drink of choice — as he commiserated at a table in the sports bar with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. This reporter observed from a distance as they appeared to be swapping war stories from the trail. 

Over the course of about five minutes of observation, nobody except the waiter approached to greet them or wish Castro or Gillibrand good luck on the campaign trail. No travelers stopped to ask for a photo or to tell either one why they're supporting them.  

Nobody rushing in or out of the G Gates seemed to know or could place Castro or Gillibrand — or even paused to say hello while rushing off to baggage claim or a connecting flight.

By the end of August, Gillibrand had dropped out of the race — never able to break out of the single digits despite a multi-million dollar campaign war chest and her liberal bona fides. And Castro remains in the mix, but at the bottom of the 10-candidate field that has qualified for the fall debates, and he's still struggling to register in any early-voting state.

This also happened the morning after the first presidential debates in June, when Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, quietly waited at Miami International Airport for a direct flight back to Washington. A few Washingtonians and folks who work in politics and media also returning to the capital said hello — but no civilians removed from the political fray. Bennet is still running but scratching in most polls.

Fast forward to this week in September, a time at which many Americans are just starting to turn their attention to the still-sprawling presidential campaign. There've been three rounds of nationally televised debates. And this time, candidates are rushing to western Iowa for the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry. (Fun fact: The steak is actually grilled. A "steak fry" refers to a steak picnic lunch.)

Just beyond that same sports bar and an airport bookstore at Gate G1B, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, paced back and forth on her cellphone, plugged into earphones as she chatted away at midday Thursday. Her traveling aide, Nora Kate Keefe, kept watch from a nearby seat.

This time, the G Gates Test registered a different response. An excited, middle-aged man approached and whispered something to Warren, who nodded, thanked him and resumed her call. A beaming younger man stepped forward while she was still on the phone and asked for a quick selfie. Mid-sentence, Warren obliged.

Suddenly, Keefe emerged, fulfilling her role as the senator's dutiful and loyal body woman, holding off gawkers until Warren finished her call.

And when Warren hung up, a line formed — out of nowhere. A bookstore employee ran over to watch. So did a waiter (maybe from that sports bar? Unclear.) Flight attendants and pilots did, too. Moms with young kids. As an older couple passed, the husband said to his wife, "That's Warren!"

Elizabeth Warren greets fellow travelers in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Ed O'Keefe / CBS News

But they kept on moving. So did plenty of others, either oblivious to the spectacle, unimpressed by Warren or panicked and late to catch a flight. 

To be clear, this test of a candidate's mettle isn't perfect or scientific — or even possible with some candidates. Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, among others, prefer flying private jets. But it might apply to bus stops, since former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Democrat of Texas, recently took a Bolt Bus from New York to Boston for an event.

In some ways, the Warren scene on Thursday resembled a moment from "The West Wing." (Sorry, but political scribes of a certain age are naturally inclined to compare present-day reality to the NBC show. Just accept this as fact [this reporter is still dubious about the show's possible reboot].)

Remember that scene in Season Two, Episode Two, when then-New Hampshire Governor Josiah Bartlet snuck into O'Hare late on the night of the Illinois Democratic primary to spend a few quiet moments with senior campaign aide Josh Lyman, who was fleeing Chicago because of the unexpected death of his father?

"Your father died, Josh, I can't believe it," Bartlet said as he snuck up to the departure gate. (Remember that before Sept. 11, 2001, non-passengers could walk up to an airport gate.)

"Governor, you shouldn't be here," Lyman replied.

The two talked for a few minutes about life and family and Bartlet thanked Lyman for his hard work before the president-to-be stood to leave the terminal with Secret Service protection in tow. As he left, passengers approached Bartlet to shake his hand and wish him well. (Remember that before Sept. 11, 2001 and a few years after, airline passengers didn't carry cellphones with built in cameras to capture the moment.) The music swelled and the camera pulled back, dramatically signaling that this was the moment Bartlett realized he was going to be the nominee.

Of course, what transpired Thursday afternoon at O'Hare does not signal that Warren is the nominee. No ballot has been cast, and there are still a little more than 130 days until the Iowa caucuses. Candidates will rise, fall and rise again in various opinion polls.

But once Warren arrived in Cedar Rapids, the crowds gathered again. Fresh off her flight, the picture-taking started almost immediately.

"Welcome to Iowa!" a TSA agent shouted at Warren.

"It's good to be back," she said.

Warren has what Bennet, Castro and Gillibrand do not, and it's registering in the polls and on the ground in early primary states. But it's also registering at the crossroads of the world in the midst of traveling masses. And that will matter especially as Democrats start wondering more who might be best equipped to find broader appeal next year.

View CBS News In