If you’ve followed Pete Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa, you know it’s been one of the more surprising stories in the field. And if you had doubts about his sustainability, it would help to take a closer look at his ground game.
Buttigieg hasn’t changed much about the message of his campaign over the past few months. Hope, belonging, and unity are the pillars and they are the aspirations with which voters have most identified.
“I feel like one of the biggest things that I like about his campaign is the inclusion, the ‘Rules of the Road,’” said Ashley Neuenschwander, a 32-year-old from Marion who attended Buttigieg’s Cedar Rapids event on Saturday.
“Everybody is a part of it, or can be. He’s representing not just, like, one sect of Democrats,” she said. “He’s someone that is genuine and open to different ideas, and I like that.”
Few people mention specific policies when they say they like Buttigieg. Many do note that they appreciate his position on issues like mental health and why it should be thought of the same way as physical health, or that teachers should have more support and better pay.
In his last weekend in Iowa before the Monday caucuses, Buttigieg pulled thousands of people to his “Get Out the Caucus” rallies, even in small, rural towns. According to campaign crowd counts, a total of more than 3,000 people showed up to his events on Friday and Saturday.
He brings cheers from his usual opening in which he tells people to imagine the day the sun comes up over their hometown the first morning after Donald Trump leaves office, and what feelings that might inspire.
On Saturday, Buttigieg filled venues in small towns and cities alike.
His smallest turnout was on Saturday with 150 people in Anamosa, a small town between Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. That same day, he turned out Oelwein’s largest crowd of the caucus cycle with 253 attendees.
His largest gathering was in Davenport, with a crowd of 830.
At all of his weekend events, the crowds led chants of the candidate’s name before he took the stage, which is somewhat new. The questions have been just as hard-hitting and serious as ever, maybe even more so with the impeachment trial in the news and on voters’ minds.
“I’ve been following Pete ever since the CNN town hall last spring and I’ve been consistently impressed with the way he’s handled himself. And I like the way his campaign is based on values,” said Mitch Wright, a 60-year-old resident in Sioux City. “I tend kind of moderate and I think he will do a good job of uniting people across the spectrum to get things done.”
This weekend, several people asked about how Buttigieg would preserve American democracy, especially running an administration right after President Trump’s. Buttigieg’s calls for repealing the campaign finance Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment, and passing a new Voting Rights Act for the 21st-century, get a lot of applause.
Most of his support comes back to his demeanor and personality.
“He speaks in a measured, calm tone and when he doesn’t know something, he’s willing to listen,” said Marcia Powell, a 55-year-old from Strawberry Point.
Voters consistently talk about Buttigieg’s calm demeanor as one of his best selling points as a candidate, with some going so far as to compare him to politicians like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
The former mayor led a small, Midwestern city, and didn’t have much of a platform outside of South Bend, Indiana. He’s also the first openly gay candidate to run for president.
But after a $24 million haul in 2019’s second fundraising quarter, Buttigieg hit the ground in Iowa, and results showed almost immediately.
He rose in the polls through October. He became the front-runner in November. And he’s secured his place in the top four among former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The Des Moines Register was scheduled to release a new poll Saturday night alongside CNN, but ultimately had to cancel its release at the last minute after a Buttigieg supporter said his name was left off the list of candidates during a polling call.
So, where does he stand going into Monday?
In this last month, the campaign has focused on demonstrating how Buttigieg might perform against Trump by focusing on the 31 Obama-Trump counties in Iowa.
Buttigieg visited 27 of those counties, and according to the campaign, he’s drawn a larger crowd than any other Democratic nominee in 20 of them.
Some Iowans at his events this weekend have followed Buttigieg since he announced his campaign, and they said it’s been exciting to see him catch on nationwide.
“When he started it was interesting to see him just trying to get interviews with people, be on Ellen and stuff,” Neuenschwander said. “It’s really exciting to see that other people like the message, other people are hearing the message.”
“It’s pretty encouraging. I mean, when I first started supporting he was lower in the polls and he’s been kind of gaining momentum, so it’s been encouraging,” said Aaron Boot, 38. “I honestly don’t know who my second choice would be.”
One thing has changed in his rallies. Starting on Jan. 30, Buttigieg began mentioning Biden and Sanders in his stump speech, and he drew a direct contrast between them and his candidacy. And he made a direct pitch for why he’s the better candidate.
Biden, he said, has argued now isn’t the time to take a chance on someone new.
“But I’m here to suggest that history has taught us that when there is a great moment of risk like this, the biggest risk we could take is to try to meet a fundamentally new challenge by falling back on the familiar,” Buttigieg said.
On the other hand, Buttigieg said Sanders is advocating for the goals everyone in the Democratic Party can share and support, “but he’s offering a politics that suggests that you’re either for a revolution or you’re for the status quo.”
Buttigieg said Americans can’t think that way because beating Trump will require a majority of Americans uniting behind one idea of how America should go into the future.
Hope. Belonging. Unity. The core of Buttigieg’s message.
“One thing I’ve learned about diversity is we have to come together instead of demonize the other side. And so Pete is the one that I have felt provided that in a way that other candidates haven’t,” Powell said.
“I was just looking around and I’m seeing people all sorts of different backgrounds, some are students, some are business leaders in this community, farmers from 15 miles away,” she said. “I think he’s attracting a wide cross section, including a lot of Independents and some Republicans, and that’s really what we need to go together.”
By Nikoel Hytrek