Bob Thomas, the former chair of the Appanoose County Democrats, needed the clarity of a long winter’s drive to finally commit to a presidential candidate.
“Over Christmas, I drove down to Dallas, Interstate 35 the whole way, all by myself, and I made the decision that I’m going to support Pete at the caucus and I’m going to sign one of these cards here in a minute or two,” said Thomas, on stage at the Majestic Theater in downtown Centerville, as he held a piece of paper signaling his commitment to caucus for Pete Buttigieg.
“This whole year has been tough trying to decide,” Thomas said. “Too many choices, all of us looking for the perfect candidate. And I think after a year, I’ve decided that there is no perfect candidate. We’ve got to go with the one that we think is best.”
Thomas, who has participated in 12 caucus cycles dating back to President Jimmy Carter, was not alone in his indecision. The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll from November found only 30% of likely Democratic caucus-goers “have a first choice and their minds are made up.”
On Sunday afternoon, Buttigieg greeted about 250 people who filled the theater’s seats to see the Indiana politician.
He was in Southern Iowa, in a red, rural county bordering Missouri. Donald Trump won Appanoose County in 2016 by 36 percentage points. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney are the only other candidates still in the race to have campaigned there.
Susan McDanel, chair of the Appanoose County Democrats and a retired high school government teacher, said Buttigieg’s campaign event was the largest she had ever seen locally. As a teacher, McDanel said she would take students to see Democratic and Republican candidates, including John Edwards and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I’m pretty positive I’ve never seen a bigger crowd,” said McDanel, who lives on a farm north of Centerville.
Though registered Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the county, McDanel said it used to lean Democratic. The voters she knows are looking for “someone who’s a moderate who can reach across the aisle. Someone who is … a centrist.”
Buttigieg fit that description, she said.
“People like it when a candidate comes to a small town,” McDanel said. “They all go to the big towns, and people really, they want to see a presidential candidate. There were Republicans there and there were Democrats there and independents. They want to hear, what are they like in person versus a slick commercial?”
Buttigieg, who sits atop the polls in Iowa, delivered his 15-minute stump speech before taking questions from the audience.
Also Sunday, Buttigieg met voters in Knoxville, Ottumwa and Fort Madison, where he drew more than 500 people to the local YMCA. The last time he was in Lee County, Buttigieg drew about 250 people at a riverfront park in Keokuk.
The soon-to-be former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has pitched himself — without explicitly saying so — as an alternative in the more moderate Democrat lane to national polling leader Joe Biden.
Part of his appeal in trying to win over Democrats, and even some “future former Republicans,” lies in his health care proposal “Medicare for All Who Want It.” Under his proposal, Americans would have the option to buy in to a government health insurance plan at a low cost.
“I trust you to decide whether you want it,” Buttigieg said. “If you’d rather be on some other plan, that’s fine by me. The important thing isn’t making sure that the government’s your health care provider. The most important thing to me is making sure that one way or the other, we see to it that there’s no such thing as an uninsured American.”
The caucuses are about campaigning face-to-face with Iowans and working to win over every voter so candidates have a shot at viability in all of the state’s precincts.
That push for a personal connection was on display Sunday as Buttigieg called on a woman in the audience who had a question to ask on behalf of her father, who couldn’t attend the event but wanted to hear Buttigieg’s response. Her father, she said, wanted to know how a mayor would have the skillset necessary to deal with “world affairs.”
“Are you recording for us?” Buttigieg asked the woman as he stood on stage. “What’s his name? Alright, Richard, we’re trying to win you over on the experience question.”
Buttigieg said his “foreign policy worldview” was shaped by how international decisions affect America’s hometowns, like Centerville, but also from his experience as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
“We need a foreign policy for places like Centerville,” he said. “When we’re out in the world, we need to make sure that it’s acting to the benefit of our communities right here at home. My foreign policy worldview also comes from the experience I have of being sent into war on the orders of the U.S. president. It’s one of the reason why I will never underestimate the gravity of the decisions made in that situation room.”
Larry Phillips of Lamoni, in nearby Decatur County, didn’t need to be won over. He stepped into the Majestic Theater fully committed. For the first time, the 69-year-old was passionate enough about a candidate to go door-to-door trying to gin up support.
“Pete is the candidate who can be a unifier, not a divider, in the White House,” Phillips said. “I like his youth and the energy he brings to the campaign trail. I can tell he’s not in this for himself, but he really wants to make a difference.”
By Elizabeth Meyer