/Buttigieg’s inside-out 2020 strategy: Viral, then local

Buttigieg’s inside-out 2020 strategy: Viral, then local

Pete Buttigieg

Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, left, poses for a selfie at the Iowa State Fair. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

2020 elections

The Democratic mayor is trying to catch up with rivals who have spent more time and resources organizing in Iowa this year.

TIPTON, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg burst into the 2020 presidential race by building national excitement on social media and cable news shows. Now, pork chop in hand, he’s playing catch-up in the all-important first caucus state.

The 37-year-old mayor has yet to snag a single in-state endorsement in Iowa, and while his campaign has 57 staffers on the ground, it expanded to that number only recently. It’s a sharp contrast to other top Democratic candidates, who made investments in Iowa last winter to try to identify supporters and build a foundation for 2020, knowing the results here will shape the rest of the fight for the Democratic nomination.

Story Continued Below

But Buttigieg — who swung through Iowa this week for a series of packed town halls, meet-and-greets and impromptu conversations at the state fair — hopes his strategy, which he says was partly borne out of modern necessity, has given him the resources to run an accelerated Iowa campaign ahead of next year’s vote.

“You’ve had to tell a national story quicker,” said Buttigieg, who caught fire advertising himself on TV and with donors as an unconventional choice: a gay, millennial mayor who served in Afghanistan, earned a Harvard degree and won a Rhodes scholarship. “You couldn’t just sneak up on people by showing up in an early state, and then explode on to the scene later.”

“But I still think it’s the case that local interaction and organization matters,” Buttigieg continued, noting that some of his rivals have been organizing in Iowa for a year now. The South Bend, Ind., mayor, for his part, began as a long shot after losing a race for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2017, coming into the presidential race largely unknown and with thin financial resources.

“We had to very quickly scale up and bring the resources through the door that we are now plowing into the ground in order to have that kind of campaign capability,” Buttigieg added.

The national enthusiasm Buttigieg attracted has popped in Iowa, too; at a town hall in Tipton, a woman told Buttigieg that she has “been impressed with you from the first cable show I saw with you,” adding, “it’s nice to finally meet you.”

But Buttigieg’s rise — sparked by his viral CNN town hall in March — hit unexpectedly, and his “momentum outstripped his organization, so now he’s playing catch-up,” said David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who led President Barack Obama’s campaigns and has advised Buttigieg. “During the first six months of his campaign, [Buttigieg] spent a lot of his time on fundraising and media appearances because he had to, but that left less time for the early states, so I think they’re readjusting that focus now.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has built an army in Iowa of more than 65 people, snapping up top in-state talent as soon as she announced her bid in January. Sen. Cory Booker seeded Iowa with organizers in February, earning a glowing headline this week from the Iowa Starting Line blog: “It’s not if Cory Booker breaks out in Iowa, it’s when.”

“Building an organization takes time. Building staff capacity takes time. And if you’re bringing in a lot of staff in August, there’s a pretty good chance they’re not from Iowa,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist who is not working with a presidential campaign. “The fact that Warren and Booker moved in early — [you] can’t underestimate how much a difference that makes.”

Sarah Backstrom, a teacher from Hardin County, Iowa, who saw Buttigieg speak at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, said she was first drawn to Buttigieg on social media. “Honestly, that’s what everyone’s watching these days — Facebook or Twitter or Instagram,” she said. “Maybe he needs to show up more in person, too, but he’s always on my news feed.”

In Iowa polling, Buttigieg regularly lands in Democrats’ top five. But he didn’t crack double digits in Monmouth University’s August poll, unlike former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris got a late start of her own in Iowa, and like Buttigieg, quickly staffed up over the summer.

“A lot of people got to know him on Twitter, on Facebook and on TV, which is a great way to reach people, but I know there’s a lot of voters who aren’t plugged in that way and they need to see you out on the trail, doing retail politics,” said Penny Rosfjord, the Democratic chairwoman of Iowa’s 4th District. “Has been here in Iowa? Yes. Would we like to see more of him? Yes.”

Buttigieg made up for lost time this week with a three-day sweep through southeastern Iowa, hitting several counties that flipped from President Barack Obama in 2012 to President Donald Trump in 2016. Buttigieg believes he can grab those swing voters back, since he, too, hails from the middle of the country.

Standing before a red barn at the Cedar County fairgrounds, Buttigieg rolled out a policy plan for rural America and recounted Harvard classmates who “could not remember if I was from Indiana, Iowa or Idaho” to laughter from the crowd.

Buttigieg leans into his mayorship and the story of his Indiana hometown on the trail. But some voters said they “worry that he’s too cerebral” for Midwestern voters to “hear his strong story,” said Brenden Lyman, a 27-year-old law student from Madison, Wisconsin, who drove to hear many of the presidential candidates stump at the state fair.

Appearing distant is a criticism the mayor has heard before. When Buttigieg returned to South Bend after a black man was fatally shot by a white police officer, some observers criticized him for being someone who “speaks like someone analyzing a problem rather than empathizing,” Axelrod said. “But it’s a growth process for new candidates, and he’s showing signs of that growth.”

There was no shortage of traditional handshaking politics for Buttigieg this week. He grinned for hundreds of pictures, throwing an arm around voters who waited for him after every event. He took a selfie of his own at the butter cow, an Iowa State Fair staple, followed by a turn on a giant slide with a voter’s son, who had held up a homemade sign, requesting the ride with the mayor.

Buttigieg signed Iowans’ covers of Time and Out magazines, then chowed down on pork-on-a-stick, fried Oreos and a red, white and blue slushie. He even took a question on the designated hitter in Major League baseball in Burlington, Iowa: “I feel you ought to have to play both parts of the game,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said that the Democrats who “have been most successful in places like the Midwest and with swing voters, really over the past half century — J.F.K., Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — every single one of them an intellectual.”

But, the mayor added, “You also have to speak plain English. And it’s what comes to you naturally as a mayor who cannot get through a grocery store unless you are prepared to explain to residents and voters what your decisions are, why they matter, how it’s going to impact them.”

It’s clear that Buttigieg, like most 2020 candidates, still has work to do in introducing himself to Iowans. Striding through the state fair on Tuesday, a woman shouted to him, through a pack of reporters, camera crews and security guards, “Now, who are you?”

“My name’s Pete, and I’m running for president,” Buttigieg said.

“You’re such a young man,” the woman replied, appearing shocked. “We need some young blood.”

Please follow and like us:
Original Source