Before, Pete Buttigieg drew polite interest from Iowans. Now, he has masses of fans.
Pete Buttigieg looked out into the Iowa crowd, stretching several rows deep.
“What a meet-and-greet,” he said to laughter from the Des Moines audience of more than 1,000.
When Buttigieg told Iowans in early February that he wanted to be president, the Democrat faced a group of about two dozen at an Ames coffee shop. Half really seemed to be there for the coffee; a bean-grinding machine drowned out parts of his remarks.
Two months later, on a breezy Tuesday, word of Buttigieg’s return brought a different kind of crowd outside a Des Moines junior high school building. The town hall event, originally scheduled for indoors, was moved outside to accommodate the throng.
It’s a testament to Buttigieg’s rapid rise in popularity after a slate of national press events, starting with a breakout CNN town hall appearance in March. Since then, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has ranked near the top of polls and even outraised some better known Democratic 2020 hopefuls.
It meant that Buttigieg had a new status as he made his way around the first-in-the-nation caucus state during a two-day swing Tuesday and Wednesday: top-tier presidential contender.
“Early on, we were just trying to get known — introduce ourselves — and, I think, on some level, also trying to demonstrate that we belonged in the race," Buttigieg told the Des Moines Register on Tuesday. "Now, I don’t think there’s any question of whether we belong in the race. Now, people are just sizing us up and deciding whether they think I’m the right messenger with the right message.”
Scott Syroka, 24, hosted a house party for Buttigieg in a Johnston living room in February. The group of about 15 was small enough that Buttigieg was able to ask each person to introduce themselves and talk about what issues they consider most urgent.
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Syroka, who attended Buttigieg’s Des Moines rally Tuesday, recalled having a conversation with another guest at the February event about how it might be one of the last times Buttigieg would draw a crowd small enough to fit in a living room.
“I think that’s why so many people love the Iowa caucuses,” he said. “Because it’s one of those places where, yeah, up close, you meet people, challenge them with hard questions if needed, but also just get to know who they are, as a person — behind the sound bites, behind the TV messaging, all of that. And it rewards candidates like Pete that (are) willing to show up and talk to people up close and face-to-face and kind of see what he’s made of. And they like what they see, I guess.”
A formal entrance into the 2020 race
Buttigieg’s visit to Iowa, his third of the election cycle, comes just a few days after he dropped the exploratory title of his presidential bid. He held a formal launch rally at an old auto plant in South Bend on Sunday, drawing several thousand indoors and outdoors, despite rain and wind.
Yet Buttigieg appears to recognize that a few weeks of mostly positive press will not translate into winning the Iowa caucuses, which are more than nine months away.
"What it tells us is: We now have the kind of name recognition, the kind of interest and the kind of support that’s going to allow us to put together the right team and enlist more and more supporters as we look out to the caucuses to really have a good showing,” he said.
It also means that Buttigieg is playing catch-up to other campaigns' on-the-ground organizing, said Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. She thinks Buttigieg will need to staff up quickly with some of the more than $7 million he raised in the first quarter of the year.
"He's got to start putting a field organization together that can capitalize on 200 people in the middle of a morning of a weekday," Dvorsky said. "You've got to make sure that you've got the infrastructure to follow up to ask for the volunteers. The big events are terrific, but you've got to be able to get back to those people."
Protesters land, Buttigieg soars
Buttigieg's visit included town hall events in Fort Dodge and Des Moines on Tuesday, and a Marshalltown house party and Des Moines community organizing event on Wednesday.
Throughout, the events were tailed by a handful of protesters led by Randall Terry, a longtime national protester who told the media he would show up to Buttigieg's events this week. At times, the disruption involved yelling at Buttigieg while he entered or left places. Someone from the group of protestors wore a devil's outfit to some events.
None of it appeared to faze Buttigieg. He even worked it into his stump speeches.
At the Des Moines town hall, Terry yelled about Sodom and Gomorrah, cited in biblical texts as having been destroyed by sinful acts.
Buttigieg, who would become the first openly gay president, had been in the midst of talking about the importance of having the freedom to marry whomever one loves. He married his husband, Chasten, last summer.
"The good news is, the condition of my soul is in the hands of God, but the Iowa caucuses are up to you," Buttigieg said, pointing at the crowd.
The Des Moines audience, which had already been cheering loudly to drown out the protester, enthusiastically applauded in response.
Iowans seek specifics
During his four public stops, Buttigieg focused on three themes: freedom, security and democracy. He joked that while it fits on a bumper sticker, each word expands into other issues.
Buttigieg said people should have the freedom to have affordable health care. He kept referencing his interest in a "Medicare for All who want it" that would exist along with an exchange market.
Buttigieg said security is about making sure the country properly addresses cybersecurity, immigration (he doesn't support building a wall on the Mexico border) and climate change (he supports some form of a carbon tax).
Democracy, according to Buttigieg, should include taking money out of politics, depoliticizing the U.S. Supreme Court and switching to a popular vote system for presidential elections.
The message resonated for Lorie Spanjers, who saw him in Fort Dodge. She brought a copy of his newly published memoir so he could sign it.
"He's a powerful speaker. l liked his message: that we have to treat each other with civility," she said.
Buttigieg also appealed to Jacob Kvinlaug, who saw him in Marshalltown. But while Kvinlaug likes Buttigieg's general message, it soon won't be enough without more policy details. Kvinlaug also recently saw Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has released several expansive proposals.
"He has to come forward with more policy ideas for me to stick with him," Kvinlaug said. "But right now, I think he's a unique character."
Buttigieg told the Register he feels he has been specific on discussions over the Electoral College and "Medicare for All." He plans to release more details in time for the first Democratic candidate debate, scheduled for June.
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In Des Moines on Wednesday, Buttigieg previewed what might be the arch of his pitch to Iowans. He said it's important to be a candidate who can draw people together despite differences. He pointed to his time as mayor to make the point.
"Most of the times I really earned my paycheck were moments when there was a moral strain on our community. And I had to figure out some way to call that community, as divided as it was, to higher values," he said. "We need a president to do that, too. Matter of fact, that might be the most important thing we need our president to do."
Brianne Pfannenstiel contributed reporting to this story.
Barbara Rodriguez covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. She can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 646-385-1212.