The South Bend, Indiana, mayor is rising in Iowa. Can he replicate the 44th president’s magic?

DECORAH, Iowa ― When Pete Buttigieg begins his stump speeches to the throngs of voters who gather to hear him at town halls across Iowa, he doesn’t start with his plan for a particular policy or elucidate a specific critique of President Donald Trump.

Instead, with a pastoral touch drawn from his liberal Episcopalian faith, the 37-year-old Democratic presidential contender, who’s also the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, asks his audience to imagine the day after Trump leaves office.

“I want to ask you to really visualize the first day when the sun comes up in this country and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States,” Buttigieg told a flock of about 1,000 voters on Saturday night in the college town of Decorah, about 15 miles south of the Minnesota border.

Unlike rivals to his left, like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Buttigieg does not ask voters to recognize the supremacy of corporate power and political corruption as much as he wants them to confront the difficulty of healing a country polarized along partisan lines. Uniting the country, he argues, is a prerequisite to expanding health care coverage, tackling climate change, boosting wages and narrowing the racial wealth gap.

But for such a monumental challenge, the request Buttigieg issues to his audience is relatively modest. He wants people to summon the patience and courage that they bring to discussions with conservative relatives at the Thanksgiving table. The day after the election, he wants them to call their friends and relatives who voted for a different presidential candidate and discuss something non-political. And most of all, he wants them to put their trust in him as the person most capable of leading Americans toward these solutions while easing the rancor of the current political moment.

“I believe that the right president, the president that I seek to be, can gather together an American majority to get these things done,” he said in Decorah on Saturday. “The good news is the American people are ready ― you can feel it. Not everybody. But most of us are ready for solutions to these problems.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to an overflow crowd at an Elks Lodge in Charles City, Iowa, on Sunday. It was the third of six town halls he held in rural northern Iowa.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to an overflow crowd at an Elks Lodge in Charles City, Iowa, on Sunday. It was the third of six town halls he held in rural northern Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

If the pitch sounds familiar, that’s because like virtually every element of the latest iteration of Buttigieg’s campaign, it’s designed to emulate the rhetoric, tactics and spirit of former President Barack Obama.

During Obama’s first run, he paired a progressive policy platform with soaring descriptions of the United States’ common fabric and appeals to overcome the partisan divisions that separated “red states” and “blue states.” He preached an optimistic faith in the power of the country to renew itself that was just vague enough for moderates and progressives alike to see their values in his platform. And he too was a young, relative political newcomer and would-be barrier-breaking minority, who took his articulate stump speech to the rural-most corners of the first-in-the-nation caucus state. (Where Obama was the country’s first Black president, Buttigieg would be the country’s first openly gay president.)

Where Obama preached “hope” and “change,” Buttigieg is calling for “hope” and “belonging.” Where Obama joked about an end to “Scooter Libby justice, and Brownie incompetence and Karl Rove politics,” Buttigieg relishes an “end to this chaos and corruption and the tweets.”

In his barnburner speech at the Iowa Democratic Party’s massive Liberty and Justice rally and dinner in the Wells Fargo Arena on Friday night, Buttigieg made the comparison explicit to an audience of 13,000, at least a few thousand of whom were his most dedicated supporters.

“The first time I came to this state was as a volunteer to knock doors for a young man with a funny name,” he said, referencing Obama.

“And we knew the stakes were high then. The stakes are colossal now,” he continued, prompting roars of approval from his blue-and-yellow-clad fans.

“I continue to believe that Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what. I think I’ll be better at fending that off.”

- South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

But the differences between Buttigieg and Obama are just as obvious. Buttigieg has only served as mayor of a city of just over 100,000 people, and he lost both times he sought higher office. (He ran for Indiana state treasurer in 2010 and chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2017).

And though over one-quarter of the population of South Bend is Black, Buttigieg’s tenure has been rocked by race-related scandals, including the July police killing of a Black man accused of trying to steal cars, which sparked heated protests. His support among non-white Democratic primary voters is in the low single digits, according to public polls.

He’s also more popular with older voters, despite being the only candidate who is a millennial. Obama, of course, had a strong base of young people who fueled the excitement and energy of his run.

What’s more, while Obama courted voters on the activist left, Buttigieg has by turns confused them and spurned them outright. Early on, he called for the aggressive measure of adding more justices to the Supreme Court, but more recently, he said that his vision of an expanded bench would encourage the confirmation of “swing” justices like Anthony Kennedy or David Souter ― two men who were chosen by Republican presidents. The comments were widely interpreted as endorsements of Kennedy and Souter, though that did not appear to be his intention.

He’s also been especially hard on Warren and Sanders for backing a “Medicare for All,” single-payer health care plan that would effectively end the vast majority of private health care coverage.

In September and October when Warren declined to say how she would finance Medicare for All — and whether it would require tax increases — Buttigieg effectively called her a hypocrite. “Sen. Warren is known for being straightforward and was extremely evasive when asked that question, and we’ve seen that repeatedly,” he said in a CNN interview in September. (Warren subsequently released a detailed financing plan that did not raise middle-class taxes.)

When HuffPost asked him in Iowa last weekend whether his pugnacious rhetoric marked a break with his previous comments, Buttigieg insisted that he has been consistent.

“I continue to believe that Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what. I think I’ll be better at fending that off,” he said. “The reason I hold my views on health care policy is because I think it’s the right answer.”

In another discussion with reporters in Iowa over the weekend, Buttigieg also reiterated that his comments about Kennedy and Souter were in reference to a hypothetical scenario in which the Supreme Court is expanded. He believes that a larger court could be capable of accommodating swing justices and could transcend the “political warfare” of the present bench.

“I was not saying that in the current Supreme Court structure, I would appoint people with the judicial philosophy like Kennedy or Souter,” he said. “A better example would probably be Ruth Bader Ginsburg in terms of a justice whose judicial philosophy largely matches my own.”

Buttigieg greets Joe Biden before a presidential primary debate on Oct. 15. Biden has run heavily on his ties to Obama, but Buttigieg is trying to channel the former president.
Buttigieg greets Joe Biden before a presidential primary debate on Oct. 15. Biden has run heavily on his ties to Obama, but Buttigieg is trying to channel the former president.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Pushing Biden Out Of The Obama Lane?

Notwithstanding Buttigieg’s glaring differences with Obama, he is trying to cultivate the kinds of voters who remain enamored of the former president’s eloquence and sunny disposition. Call it the “West Wing” lane. He is the kind of candidate that Democrats of varied ideological leanings can see as the personification of their ideal of politics ― a place where intelligence, uplifting rhetoric and an inspiring personal story are enough to vanquish the demons of division that plague the country.

Many attendees of Buttigieg’s town halls volunteered comparisons to Obama unprompted, while some cited other iconic Democratic presidents.

“I think it’s because of his charisma,” said Barb Neal, a retired banker from Mount Vernon, who attended the Decorah town hall, by way of explaining the Obama comparison. “He just gives me hope. He’s so positive. So many of them are so negative ― just bashing the other side, and he doesn’t do that.”

Mary Thomsen, Neal’s sister, who still works as a banker, chimed into agree.

“He reminds me of Obama. For some reason he also reminds me of John F. Kennedy,” she said.

“He reminds me of Obama. For some reason he also reminds me of John F. Kennedy.”

- Mary Thomsen, an Iowa voter

Of course, former Vice President Joe Biden has, more than any other candidate, sought to capitalize on his direct ties to Obama. He frequently references “my friend Barack” in his stump speeches. And his strong support among Black voters in the early primary state of South Carolina is widely attributed to positive memories of his partnership with the country’s first Black president.

In trying to channel Obama — rather than generate good will by association with him — Buttigieg appears to be having success with many of the Iowa voters who are looking for a more moderate contender, but may be underwhelmed by Biden’s performance on the trail.

Buttigieg trounced the former vice president in third quarter fundraising (though the mayor’s haul still fell short of Warren and Sanders’ totals). And he has been rising in Iowa’s polls even as Biden has continued to drop.

Several Iowa Democrats at Buttigieg’s events in small towns across the northern part of the state over the weekend described concerns about either the effect of Biden’s age on his public speaking abilities, or the negative publicity surrounding his son Hunter’s position on the board of a natural gas company in Ukraine.

Laura Swalve, a former school psychologist from Swea City who came to see Buttigieg at the VFW hall in Algona on Monday, described herself as a “fan” of Biden’s. But while clarifying that she does not think he is senile, Swalve worries that he’s “just not as quick” as he used to be.

“I honestly think his age sometimes comes through, like in the debates, when he kind of didn’t know how to say things,” she said.

For Bill Paup, a retired schoolteacher from Cedar Falls who came to a Buttigieg town hall in Waverly on Sunday, the appearance of wrongdoing related to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine was enough to push him toward other options.

“I know that it’s not valid concerns, but just like in 2016, it doesn’t take a valid concern to bury somebody,” Paup said. “It just takes a lot of noise. And he’s got that.”

Buttigieg speaks to an estimated 334 people at a VFW hall in Algona, Iowa, on Monday. The town, home to 5,560 people, is in a county that flipped from Obama to Trump.
Buttigieg speaks to an estimated 334 people at a VFW hall in Algona, Iowa, on Monday. The town, home to 5,560 people, is in a county that flipped from Obama to Trump.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

‘Pete’s Team Has Shown Up’

The Liberty and Justice Celebration is the last of several Iowa political confabs that punctuate the six-month period of campaigning leading up to the Iowa caucuses, which are due to take place this year on Feb. 3. Only candidates who purchase the state party’s voter file or have field offices in the state are permitted to speak. They are also welcome to purchase tickets for their supporters to attend and cheer them on in the stands. (In other words, raucous applause is often less spontaneous, and more sponsored.)

In November 2007, Obama’s memorable speech at the fundraiser ― then known as the Jefferson-Jackson dinner ― set the tone for the homestretch of Obama’s Iowa campaign, which culminated in his historic victory on caucus day.

Buttigieg sought to make his speech ― and delegation ― at Friday’s Liberty and Justice Celebration a similarly impressive turning point. Festivities began with a rally in downtown Des Moines and a march to the dinner that the Buttigieg campaign said included 2,300 people.

Although the campaign ― like other campaigns ― coordinated the participation of many Iowa activists, there was also a delegation of some 1,000 members of the ad hoc, internet-based, grassroots group, “Barnstomers 4 Pete,” who attended the event on their own dime.

Ariana Wyndham, an undocumented immigrant who can remain in the country thanks to Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program and who lives in Warren, Ohio, is a leader of the group. She drove to Des Moines with her husband Peter, a crane operator, for the dinner festivities and a few days of canvassing and bonding with fellow activists.

Speaking to HuffPost on the concourse of the Wells Fargo arena, Wyndham, covered in Buttigieg swag, described suffering from anxiety and depression after Trump’s election. Without the right to vote, she felt powerless to get involved in politics until she found out about Buttigieg. She was particularly drawn to the account Buttigieg gives in his book, “Shortest Way Home,” of reviving South Bend, a struggling post-industrial city that reminded her of her own.

“It’s just amazing to see that,” she said. “I think it can be done everywhere and it should be done everywhere.”

“Obama was the model. He was everywhere.”

- Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D)

The following days were a show of force from Buttigieg designed to capitalize on his strong reception at the Liberty and Justice Celebration. On Saturday, after answering the questions of building trades union leaders at a multi-candidate fish fry in Cedar Rapids, Buttigieg embarked on a three-day bus tour across rural northern Iowa, welcoming reporters onto his bus for extended group interviews in between campaign stops.

Over the course of six town halls, Buttigieg spoke to crowds ranging from 275 people on the low end to upwards of 1,000, according to estimates provided to the campaign by building managers. The turnout was significant considering that all but one of the events took place in towns with a few thousand people. (His fourth stop was in Mason City, which has a population just under 28,000.)

The campaign has one of the most extensive field presences in Iowa with over 100 staff on the ground and some 20 offices.

Buttigieg has ramped up his investment in digital advertisements in the state as well, spending over $48,000 on Facebook ads targeting Iowans in the past week alone — more than any other Democrat running for president

“In a lot of the towns that not just campaigns but a lot of economists have written off, Mayor Pete’s team has shown up,” said J.D. Scholten, a Democrat running to represent several of the towns Buttigieg visited in the U.S. House and who has not endorsed in the presidential primary. “For months it was Warren. I don’t know if they’ve switched strategy or something. I’m just saying I’m now seeing Pete more.”

For Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor who tagged along with Buttigieg for a tour of an ethanol plant in Mason City, Buttigieg’s itinerary was still more evidence that he was walking in the footsteps of Obama, who won Iowa twice. All but one of Buttigieg’s bus tour stops was in a county that Obama won at least once and then went for Trump in 2016.

“Obama was the model. He was everywhere,” Judge said.

Obama as a presidential candidate, greeting voters during a campaign stop in Mason City, Iowa, in December 2007. Iowa Democrats praised him for campaigning in rural areas.
Obama as a presidential candidate, greeting voters during a campaign stop in Mason City, Iowa, in December 2007. Iowa Democrats praised him for campaigning in rural areas.
Jim Young / Reuters

Lessons From The Obama Era?

Buttigieg has not shied away from the obvious differences between himself and Obama. At a town hall in Mason City on Sunday night that was attended by about 500 people, nearly all of whom were white, a voter asked Buttigieg how he planned to increase his support with Black voters.

“The way to win any vote is to deserve to win it. My job is to make sure there is no confusion about where we stand,” he said.

To that end, he has unveiled a multi-pronged plan, named after the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, tailored to address the particular challenges facing Black communities ― from difficulty obtaining credit to start a business or buy a home to encountering racial bias in the job market or the health care system.

He also devoted a segment of his stump speech each stop in rural Iowa to confronting the country’s legacy of anti-Black racism.

The impact of racism “is as important to discuss with mostly white audiences as it was with the NAACP gathering I was at early today,” he told another predominantly white audience in Decorah on Saturday night. “This could wreck the entire American project … as long as we allow it to be the case that this is two different countries in your health and your access to housing or ability to get a job,” depending on whether you are white or Black.

And when Buttigieg lists mayoral peers to whom he looks for inspiration and guidance, two of the first names to come up are Michael Tubbs and Randall Woodfin, the young Black leaders of Stockton, California, and Birmingham, Alabama, respectively.

For the most progressive voters in the Democratic primary, however, Obama’s presidency is a cautionary tale, rather than a model. For example, they see a president whose embrace of corporate-friendly international trade agreements was wrongheaded and politically damaging, and whose Wall Street-cozy cabinet prevented him from adequately addressing the post-2008 housing crisis.

“These same criticisms were leveled against President Obama.”

- Pete Buttigieg

But when asked to make the case that he would deliver on his progressive economic promises despite the support he enjoys from corporate America, Buttigieg again turns to Obama.

“These same criticisms were leveled against President Obama,” said Buttigieg, noting that Obama received campaign contributions from corporate leaders, including many Wall Street executives. “If you think about with respect to Wall Street, he delivered the strongest regulations and accountability that there had been there in a generation.”

Perhaps more importantly, Buttigieg’s embrace of conciliatory politics of the kind Obama employed in his first term risks turning off voters disappointed in the Republican-driven gridlock of the Obama era.

HuffPost asked Buttigieg on Monday how he would navigate shepherding policy priorities through Congress even in an optimistic scenario where Democrats control the Senate thanks to conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“This is the interesting thing ― you look at a Joe Manchin, some of these kind of swing-state senators, their orientation may be moderate, but that doesn’t mean they’re pro-corporate,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t think I’m going to have trouble with a lot of moderate senators on the idea of paid family leave, for example, or making sure that the tax code is more beneficial to the working- and middle-class versus the very wealthy.”

Later that day, Buttigieg fielded a similar question from a voter at a town hall in Algona about how he would defend his policies from Republican attacks. He addressed the less favorable ― and arguably more likely ― scenario of a Congress that is at least partly controlled by Republicans.

Buttigieg’s proposed solution: Holding political rallies in the states and districts of lawmakers obstructing the legislation.

“There’s a big airplane that comes with the Oval Office, right? And when we’re talking about a measure, that’s not just a new policy and something that people support, even in a conservative area, I believe the best use of that airplane’s to fire it up, fly it into the district or the state of a senator or a member of Congress getting in the way of one of these measures ― it would be good for their constituents and reminding their constituents what’s at stake,” he said.

Perhaps fittingly, it was a tactic that Obama also tried. And notably, it didn’t work.

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