vision 2020

Why Pete Buttigieg Desperately Wants Iowans to See Him As an Outsider

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has never been an especially subtle endeavor, by design, but the former mayor has excised any remaining understatement in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. He is tired of “the chaos” and “the tweets,” he invariably tells crowds. “I live and breathe politics and I’m exhausted,” he half-sighs, like he did while speaking to about 400 people at Simpson College in Indianola on Tuesday. It almost makes him want to “switch it off and just watch cartoons or something,” he continues, to at least a few inevitable titters. His point, of course, is that today’s version of D.C. is terrible, and that electing “a mayor going to Washington might be a better idea to bring solutions to Washington than from Washington.”

Though this general argument has been central to Buttigieg’s campaign since he launched his presidential bid over a year ago, it’s taken on a heightened significance now that his routine is juxtaposed with the impeachment trial raging back east. While Buttigieg has scheduled more than 25 in-person events in the state for the final week before the caucuses, three of his major rivals, stuck in the Senate, have been scrambling to get any face time with Iowans at all. “If there’s one truism about caucus politics, it’s the more you’re here, the better off you are,” said Iowa congressman Dave Loebsack, a Buttigieg backer. “That’s the case especially here at the end.” And even as Joe Biden has been barnstorming Iowa, he has been at the center of the impeachment action in D.C. — a process that all stems from efforts by Donald Trump to undermine his candidacy. The Democratic National Committee on Monday felt compelled to send its surrogates list five rapid-response talking points emails defending Biden by name during that day’s session, according to copies I saw. And on Wednesday a Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, said he would be open to hearing from Biden’s son Hunter as a witness in the trial.

Viewed from the outside, the timing of the trial has worked out nicely for Buttigieg. “It amplifies the contrast that we’ve presented,” an adviser told me this week. His senior team is convinced that the imagery itself make this clear: While Buttigieg is making a case to Iowans in person about breaking through the muck of Washington, his rivals — specifically Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar — must communicate with caucusgoers via television interviews from the Capitol, at least when they can’t get on a last-second charter plane to Council Bluffs for a one-off evening rally, or on a phone for a tele-townhall. Given the shockingly high number of uncommitted voters not just in Iowa but in next-to-vote New Hampshire, the Buttigieg braintrust thinks a blunt contrast like this can only help, especially when paired with the campaign’s robust, well-trained field organization. “I cannot convey strongly enough the level of exhaustion. The Number One concern is: Who can win in November? But the way [voters] look at that is they feel this tremendous responsibility,” said New Hampshire congresswoman Annie Kuster, a campaign co-chair. “The main advantage that Pete has right now is to be in front of audiences that are literally still kicking the tires. It’s very much persuasion mode.”

That’s the rosy view. But it’s also all coming at an under-appreciatedly disconcerting time for Buttigieg, who appears to be stumbling to the finish line. He dropped nine points in Iowa — from a clear lead to the middle of the top tier — in the most recent Des Moines Register poll, and six points since November according to Monmouth. And the candidate whose unexpected blockbuster fundraising jarred his rivals into paying attention to him last year is now acting like he needs whatever cash he can get his hands on. In voter-turnout crunch time, he has put together a basically unprecedented schedule of last-second, in-person fundraisers that will take him (briefly) out of public view and into rooms full of wealthy donors: one in Des Moines before the caucuses, at least two in New York before the New Hampshire primary, and at least four more in California between that contest and Nevada’s. His advertisement spending on Facebook has dropped in recent days, on average, to a level below Warren’s and Sanders’s, according to company data. And he’s paying for significantly fewer television ads in the Des Moines media market during the final week than either of those two candidates or the combination of Biden and his supportive super PAC — and only barely more than either Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang, according to private ad tracking data I got a hold of this week. In New Hampshire, his campaign decreased its television spending this week, and the progressive veterans group VoteVets PAC is now running TV spots for him, furnishing support he wasn’t always expected to need. He’s cut back on the air in South Carolina, too. And though his allies are quick to point out that he’s still picking up endorsements from local legislators — like, most recently, the state’s house minority whip — they’ve been frustrated that none of the major national or local newspaper endorsements have gone his way, while each of the candidates he’s competing with for votes has gotten positive ink. (Biden won backing from the Sioux City Journal, Warren got the Register and Storm Lake Times, Klobuchar the Quad City Times, New Hampshire Union Leader, and Keene Sentinel, and she and Warren shared the New York Times.)

At least one of those rivals has lost patience with Buttigieg’s above-the-fray pitch: “I have a constitutional duty, I have a job, I don’t have the ability to say, ‘Oh, let’s turn off the TV, or go flip the channel and watch cartoons.’ I am in the arena,” Klobuchar said Wednesday evening, after hearing Buttigieg’s comments. One of her advisers called his comments “dangerous,” given the gravity of the impeachment trial, and insisted that Iowans understand senators’ constitutional duties, and so aren’t offended by their absence.

The backdrop to Buttigieg’s currently unsettled moment is that it’s long been widely understood that he needs a win, or at least a very strong performance, in Iowa to seriously pursue the nomination. Now, his team increasingly believes he needs a clear result early out of the first two states — that he likely can’t afford to stay effectively tied with Biden heading into Nevada. That’s in large part because he needs to increase his standing among nonwhite voters — a task that his team has hoped would become simpler if he proves he can win Iowa. Yet reports this week detailing the frustrations of people of color on his staff have complicated those efforts, which have included attempts to win over members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill. (Maryland congressman Anthony Brown is the one member to have backed Buttigieg; Loebsack and Virginia congressman Don Beyer both told me they have tried swaying others in recent weeks.)

Pushing for a final surge among undecided voters, then, Buttigieg has set a last-days schedule that focuses heavily on eastern, industrial parts of the state where he is aiming to win over voters who backed both Barack Obama and Trump with his pitch that only an outsider can bring the necessary factions together. “I hear Vice-President Biden saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” he said on Thursday in Decorah. “But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with an important election coming up is to look at the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Trump who is new in kind.” He then rhetorically elbowed Sanders, too. At the campaign headquarters, his aides have been pointing to the recent Register poll’s finding that caucus-goers most want a president able to unite the country. Their hope, now, is that the conventional wisdom about his needing a win is wrong, and that he can at least emerge to fight another day, in New Hampshire, after Monday. “What they’re saying is, ‘Who the fuck knows?’,” said one plugged-in Democratic campaign veteran in constant contact with the top echelons of Buttigieg’s campaign.

“If any of [the major candidates] are a distant fourth, that could be harmful,” acknowledged Kuster. But “my impression is you’re going to have at least three of the four within a point or two of each other, and it’s essentially not going to be meaningful. So then it’s a real horse-race here [in New Hampshire] for who can get their voters out.”

Why Pete Buttigieg Wants Iowans to See Him As an Outsider