Living in a country with a president who thrives on division can be emotionally taxing for Americans seeking a better way forward.
That was the message several voters conveyed over two days of Pete Buttigieg campaign events last week in Southeast Iowa.
“This helps,” said Joan Crowe, of rural Lee County, describing the despair and hopelessness she has felt during President Donald Trump’s administration. “Listening to people talk wisely and kindly, and noticing how many are here a whole year and two-three months before we will vote.”
Crowe was awaiting Buttigieg’s arrival at a park along the Mississippi River in Keokuk. It was the third event of the day for Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Buttigieg’s seven events across seven Southeast Iowa counties last week drew more than 2,300 people, according to the campaign. Many locals said it was some of the largest turnouts for a Democratic visit they’d seen since the 2008 caucus cycle.
Starting Line attended events in Keokuk, Burlington and Fairfield, each stop drawing hundreds of people, day or night.
Crowe, who was seeing Buttigieg for the first time in-person, described him as “impressively intelligent” and “kind to people.”
Those descriptions would prove commonplace among voters seeing the 37-year-old presidential candidate for the first time, many of whom follow him in the news and watched him on the debate stage.
“He seems really decent,” said Tim Hites, of Warsaw, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Keokuk. “That’s the thing I get from him, he seems like he’s very decent and intelligent. I just find it refreshing to hear from a politician who can speak intelligently.”
While Buttigieg leans into the more humble aspects of his background — he lives in the same South Bend neighborhood where he grew up; he served as a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan — the mayor also is a graduate of Harvard University and a Rhodes Scholar.
Support for Buttigieg in Iowa has increased significantly since he officially entered the field in April as the mayor of a mid-size, Midwestern city. The Starting Line-Change Research poll last week put him in a solid fourth place position with 13%.
Despite large crowds, ballooning to 500 in Burlington and Fairfield, Buttigieg spent the majority of his time taking questions from the audience.
The short amount of time dedicated to his stump speech was largely absent of some Democrats favorite talking point: President Trump.
On the topic of the president, he said in Fairfield: “I represent, I’m pretty sure, the opposite of the current president. And I will try to set a different strategy that’s not about him. Don’t get me wrong, when he lies or acts in a racist fashion, we’ve got to say something about it. We got to confront him, put him in his place. But, this election isn’t about him, it’s about you. And the more we’re talking about him, the less we’re talking about you.”
Tom Kroupa, of Fairfield, said he was still in the “shopping” phase of the Democratic primary — he also supports Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — but also “really liked” what he heard from Buttigieg as he spoke in the town square.
“Friendly, open, bright — he’s real bright,” said Kroupa, as Buttigieg stuck around to greet those who lined up to talk to him and get their picture taken.
“He’s not angry and pissed off like orange head,” he added, referring to the president.
Several Fairfield voters compared Buttigieg’s event at the downtown park to that of former president Barack Obama, who commanded a similarly large crowd when he campaigned there in 2007. Obama’s crowd was larger, the voters recalled, but no one other than Buttigieg has come within striking distance.
“I really like Mayor Pete,” said Lisa West, as she packed up her lawn chair after the Fairfield event. “He just stands for the values that we have, which is people first, not money, getting corporate interests out of government — all the basics. We need to take our country back. As a people, we need to be more active in the political structure, and he sounds like somebody who knows that.”
Buttigieg’s resistance to dwelling on Trump appealed to West and her husband, John.
“You got to restrain yourself from giving him the attention that he is seeking,” said John West, of Fairfield. “There’s no question we got to get him out of there, but if you put too much focus on the negative and not the positive and the policies and plans that you’re going to do, it’s not going to work.”
“I love that he said that,” Lisa West recalled, of Buttigieg’s focus on voters, not Trump. “Trump thrives on hate, so when we react to him as Democrats because we just can’t believe some of the stuff he’s doing, it just feeds him. We need to just cut that out, refocus away from him and focus on the issues that are important to us.”
In Burlington, an important issue to Laurel Mark, a retired physician, was health care.
“Even though my heart may be with a Medicare For All program, I’m concerned about pushing people away out of fear,” said Mark. “That’s what I see in my patients. Nobody loves their insurance company, but they’re scared to death that they will go bankrupt.
“I’m intrigued by the idea of allowing people to feel like they’ve made their own choice,” Mark said, referring to Buttigieg’s “Medicare For All Who Want It” approach. “I think he’s right that they will choose the better option, the more affordable option.”
Mark was undecided on who to support in the Democratic primary, but said she came to Buttigieg’s event specifically to see him in-person.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time watching a lot of candidates online, but he’s the one who seems to me to speak most directly to my heart, so I wanted to see him in person.”
By the end of the night, Mark appeared to have moved closer to Buttigieg’s corner.
“I would have to say, every time I look at somebody else I feel like, they’re great. He’s better.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Lisa Schmitz