September 6, 2019 | News | No Comments
Any Iowan will remind you that September is early in the bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. At this time in the 2008 race, Barack Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton and running just a few points ahead of John Edwards. Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is currently polling at around fifth place in the national race and in the first caucus state. On Labor Day, he made his eleventh trip to Iowa as a Presidential candidate, a quick swing that included attending a panel on climate change and the opening of two new campaign offices. Some of Buttigieg’s staffers have dubbed this month the next phase of the campaign, following the first, in which they taught the electorate how to pronounce his inscrutable last name, and the second, in which they raised enough money to insure that he’d last through the fall. Until this week, his team had set up just one office in Iowa. By the end of September—the third phase of the Buttigieg campaign—it plans to have opened twenty more.
If success in the first caucus state depended on the size of a candidate’s crowds, Buttigieg might have been able to overlook the fact that his poll numbers have slipped, perceptibly, since his breakout, last spring. In March, Buttigieg’s performance at a CNN town hall propelled him to sudden relevance in the national headlines. In June, a poll from the Des Moines Register showed him jockeying for second place with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In the most recent quarter, Buttigieg brought in more money than any of his Democratic rivals, relying on a network that includes both grassroots donors and high-dollar patrons from the coasts. But a meaningful distance still separates him from the race’s front-runners, most of whom established their operations in early-voting states months ago. The optimists in Buttigieg’s camp contend that his ample finances will allow him to survive a brief period of stagnancy. The pessimists suggest that time is running out, not simply for the country—as Buttigieg is fond of repeating in his stump speech and on the debate stage—but for his prospects in an overcrowded field.
On Labor Day, as Buttigieg toured a river in Cedar Rapids where flooding a decade ago had caused billions of dollars in property damage, he found himself fielding questions about more than a few national disasters. During the weekend, an armed man in Texas had murdered seven people. Hurricane Dorian, which had slammed the northern Bahamas, killing at least five, now crept toward south Florida. The news, as usual, was dispiriting, but gun control and climate change are issues that, perhaps more than any others, allow Buttigieg to cast his youth as an asset. (“We are never going to be able to fix what’s broken in Washington by recycling the same arguments and politicians,” he says, in a Spotify advertisement that was released last month. “We’ve got to do something completely different.”) Buttigieg was a junior in high school during the Columbine massacre; he likes to remind voters that he was part of the “first school-shooting generation”—and that adults had promised that there would never be a second—before cueing up perhaps his most reliable applause line: “Shame on us if we allow there to be a third.”
Buttigieg makes a similar appeal when discussing the perils of the climate crisis. At a roundtable discussion in Cedar Rapids, he assured two high-school seniors from the Sunrise Movement of his commitment to “generational justice.” “I’m concerned for you, for your generation,” he told one of the students. “I would like to say our generation, but I’m beginning to admit that I can’t claim to be from the same generation as somebody in high school.” Buttigieg grinned. The audience, mostly white and middle-aged, broke out in applause. He told the teen-ager, “I would love for us to be figuring out stuff we can’t even imagine by the time you’re ready to run for President.”
When Buttigieg hopped on a soapbox outside his new office, a converted single-story house on the southwest side of the city, he looked tanned and well-rested, in a white button-down shirt and a snug pair of jeans. “We are going to change the expectations for the American Presidency so that it’s an office that kids can look up to,” he told a few hundred locals. Kids, in fact, abound at Buttigieg’s campaign stops. Babies can often be heard wailing as the candidate takes the stage. One of his Labor Day speeches included a stirring litany of some of the children who have attended his events: a fifth grader in Cedar Rapids who asked him how the country would protect its schools from shooters; a twelve-year-old who brought up a detailed question about health-care policy, her precocity rivalled only by her urgent need for insulin; a black fourteen-year-old whose concerns about “racial tensions” in his school distract him from cultivating his passion for computer programming. “This is exactly the kind of kid we want concentrating on what he happens to be very good at,” Buttigieg said. “But he explains to me that in the halls of his high school he’s getting called racial slurs. And I’m thinking, That’s not racial tension. That’s abuse. It is on the rise in our country, and we’ve got to turn it around.”
Part of Buttigieg’s strategic charm is his ability to communicate even progressive stances with rhetoric that emphasizes seemingly nonpartisan American values. Matthew McGrane, who recently moved, with his husband, from Chicago to Cedar Rapids, told me that he appreciated Buttigieg’s “expansion of the term ‘freedom,’ ” which, during speeches, the candidate defines, in “its richest sense,” not simply as a “freedom from” societal ills—unjust working conditions, corrupt polling practices—but a freedom “to live a life of your choosing.” A caucusgoer who attended the same event drew a comparison between the candidate’s liberty to choose a life partner—Buttigieg, who came out in 2015, is married to a man—and her own liberty to select a health-care plan. “There’s nothing more essential to freedom than having those rights,” she said.
Ryan Brainard, a father of three, from Marion, who hosts a beloved country-radio show, attended Buttigieg’s event in Cedar Rapids, where he met the candidate for the first time. He compared supporting Buttigieg to “discovering a band, or a new music act.” “You get in on the ground floor,” he said, “and then you see other people come in.” Brainard grew up in a conservative family and voted for Clinton in 2016; he said that he admired Buttigieg’s reinvigoration of faith in politics. “The Republican Party has long incorrectly held that particular issue as hostage—as though, if you’re a Christian, you can’t vote for a Democrat,” Brainard told me. “I really appreciate the fact that he speaks to that.” Jeff Zoltowski, who brought his wife and three of his children to the same event, voted for Donald Trump in the last election. “I thought that he would shake up the establishment, which would create a new generation of political candidates,” Zoltowski said, adding that, four years later, “Pete’s the candidate for that. He’s got some conservative values that a lot of the other Democrats don’t.” On the other hand, he pointed out, “I think the fact that he’s young and gay will bring out the youth vote. I think he can energize the youth in a way that no other candidate can.”
Later that day, Buttigieg stopped by his new office in Iowa City, a few blocks from the University of Iowa. A team of volunteers, led by Chris Weckman, a local contractor and a Buttigieg diehard, had spent the previous week refurbishing the building. It used to be a “nasty little tanning salon,” Weckman told me. Now it was a veritable shrine—all blue and gold paint, with countdown calendars, American flags, and an entire wall reserved for a stencilled rendering of the candidate’s face. “Looks like I’ll always be looking on you,” Buttigieg told the crowd. The key now, he said, was “to go out there” and spread his message “across the way.” “This is how we’re gonna win Iowa. And Iowa is how we’re gonna win the nomination. And that’s how we’re going to win the Presidency—so I think we’ll be looking back very fondly on this day.”
As the volunteers made their way to College Green Park, where eight hundred people convened for Buttigieg’s final stop, I chatted with Izzi Teduits and Sean Murphy, two students who helm a campus organization at the University of Iowa called Hawkeyes for Pete. Like many of Buttigieg’s volunteers, the students plan to rely on what the campaign refers to as “relational organizing,” a strategy that prioritizes leveraging familial and social networks over cold-calling strangers. Earlier that day, in Cedar Rapids, a crowd member who works at the university described a “buzz” for the candidate on campus. “You’ll see the T-shirts,” he told me. “You’ll see the signs. I have not seen that with any other candidate.” On campus, students had just finished their first week of classes, but Murphy, a sophomore, described an already palpable sense of enthusiasm. “The university president hosts a block party at the start of school, and people were just ecstatic about Pete,” he said. “He’s young. He’s fresh. He has great ideas.”
For the last few months, Buttigieg has drawn crowds in Iowa that conjure the early energy of the Obama campaign. Last month, after five hundred people showed up to a rally in Fairfield, more than a few told me that, although Obama’s audience in the same town twelve years ago was slightly larger, no other candidate’s numbers have come as close. The campaign has not resisted leaning into these comparisons, in no small part, it seems, because Buttigieg will need to rely on a similar tactic to succeed. In 2008, Obama managed to activate political interest in under-engaged communities in Iowa, where an unprecedented turnout of first-time caucusgoers delivered him a surprising eight-point victory. The precedent for such a strategy might be rarefied, but it exists. The question is whether Buttigieg’s campaign has the power, and the patience, to repeat it.
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