In the back of a West Des Moines brew pub, a dozen supporters of Pete Buttigieg sipped craft beer and wine, scribbling members of their social circles on campaign worksheets — clubs, yoga groups, jobs, school organizations.
Over the next hour, people like Julie DeMicco, a local middle school teacher, worked their smartphones in what Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign calls a “relational phone bank,” calling and texting. DeMicco hoped to catch some of her teacher friends to test their interest.
”Doing just like cold calling is so awkward,” DeMicco said. “Calling my friends for a couple minutes, it’s fun and easy.”
Her work may be easy, but Buttigieg’s is not. In Iowa, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is well behind his better-known 2020 presidential rivals, who have spent months building a deep organizational structure in the state that marks the first test for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But thanks to his campaign taking in nearly $25 million in contributions in the last quarter, money that he is using to help create an army of peer-to-peer foot soldiers, Buttigieg is rapidly trying to catch up.
And while Buttigieg’s team has confidence in his strategy, particularly the component of aggressively multiplying the personal influence of his early supporters, he faces intense time pressure to put in place the pieces that could vault him into serious consideration.
”This is something that’s going to take some time,” said Jess O’Connell, senior strategist to Buttigieg. “We are increasing our presence in cities and counties throughout Iowa. But the more time we have to build those relationships with Pete and voters, but also with the networks of people that are training and having conversations within their own communities about him, is good for us.”
That’s if they can build a large enough network fast enough. The contacts by people like DeMicco are hardly simple persuasion calls. They are part of an attempt to build a Buttigieg database, complete with measurable targets, of people on the spectrum of support, willing to volunteer, host events, even lead similar call sessions.
A key point of the effort is to expand the base of caucusgoers from those who typically attend the evening meetings to include newcomers motivated to participate since the 2016 election, when participation receded from the historic Democratic caucuses of 2008, which launched Barack Obama.
In 2007, Obama’s Iowa team, then in the early days of the digital campaign age, recorded information of those attending his events, translated those crowds into thousands of votes and stunned Hillary Clinton with his caucus victory.
Though Buttigieg had always hoped to catch fire in Iowa, his fundraising surge enabled him to first dispatch 30 full-time staffers to supplement his skeleton of four, then more than double it again in July. As of Monday, Buttigieg’s team had roughly 100 full-time staffers in place across the state, more than former Vice President Joe Biden’s, California Sen. Kamala Harris’, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s teams.
Over the past two months, Buttigieg has averaged one Iowa trip per week, including an August visit that included a packed weekday speech at the Iowa State Fair and a two-day series of stops with upbeat crowds through the state’s politically pivotal southeast.
The state of Buttigieg’s financial viability will become clear when he reports contributions during the third quarter, testing whether he can maintain his momentum in money.
He also is planning to unveil a far more visible physical presence in cities and counties across the state, adding 20 offices to his lone Des Moines headquarters in the next three weeks.
Buttigieg planned to headline the opening of offices in Cedar Rapids, the state’s working-class No. 2 metropolitan area, and Iowa City, home to the state’s largest university, on Monday.
At 37, with his Rhodes scholar and military background, Buttigieg has natural appeal among younger, educated professionals in first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire, and his comfort discussing his Christian faith could open doors among influential African Americans in South Carolina. Buttigieg’s profile as a thoughtful Midwesterner has sparked interest across ages and genders in Iowa, given the makeup of his audiences over the summer.
A breakthrough finish in an Iowa field of far better-known rivals in the February caucuses, fueled by an influx of newcomers, could reset the race with Buttigieg solidly a part of its next phase.
But that is in no way assured. And he and his team have begun executing a plan for a breakthrough, seizing on the early interest of curious Iowans.
”This is really important, and this is how our organizing is going to work here in Iowa and across the country — I’m sure you’ve got friends who you talk about where the country is headed,” Buttigieg told several hundred people who went to see him at the Iowa State Fair in August. “And they will be more likely to respond to you urging them to get involved than they will be to respond to anybody on television telling them to do it.”
Alone in her house in a rural subdivision west of Des Moines in April, Democrat Becky Steinfeldt was struck by Buttigieg’s voice on the television. It was his second appearance on ABC’s “The View,” though the professional, married mother of two had never heard him.
”I stopped what I was doing,” she said. “I was instantly intrigued.”
Struck by Buttigieg’s discussion of his faith, Steinfeldt quickly contacted his tiny Iowa staff about how to get involved. More importantly, it would turn out, she began talking to her mother, Sue Ridge, a retiree who lives in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, who within a month had adopted Buttigieg and begun discussing him with likeminded acquaintances, including her chiropractor.
”He’s pounding into my back at the time, so I had to be real careful,” Ridge said. “But you can tell whether people are going to be open to those kinds of conversations.”
Ridge’s conversion is at the heart of the idea that trusted contacts carry more influence than anonymous party activists and that believers can invite once-indifferent voters into the fold.
In the crowded field 2020 presents, any expansion of the electorate can provide an edge. And, based on Buttigieg’s summer travel across Iowa, there’s evidence of energy that can buoy a little-known candidate.
”And our job is to translate that energy into further conversations among trusted networks. I think everyone is competing hard,” O’Connell said about the field in Iowa. “But we have the resources to continue on.”