Can Buttigieg Win the Iowa Caucuses?

“We are building a fantastic team on the ground here in Iowa that wants to get to know you, mobilize our supporters, get the message out far and wide," Buttigieg said Tuesday.

By Adam Wren and design by Kris Davidson

DES MOINES—When he arrived here by public transportation Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg had the Iowa State Fair all to himself, with none of his 20 or so fellow Democratic candidates inside the fairground’s 445 acres. He used the next four hours to woo voters and eat “practically everything,” according to Eater.

But when it comes to winning the state’s Iowa Caucuses next February, Buttigieg faces a much more crowded landscape. And he’s getting a relatively late start in the state compared to other top-tier contenders such as former Vice President Joe Biden, who boasts 75 staffers and 12 offices throughout the state. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are building strong organizations on the ground, too.

Still, in the last two weeks, Buttigieg has used his $25 million second-quarter fundraising haul to bring his staff total to 60 in the state, according to the Associated Press. His campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, recently parachuted into the state for a four-day trip to build out Buttigieg’s operation here. According to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, Buttigieg isn’t among the top 10 Democrats who have visited the state the most this cycle, ranking 15th even though he’s put on 41 events over 24 days. Warren, Harris, and Sen. Bernie Sanders rank above him, though Biden has only held 26 events over 14 days. Unlike Harris, Buttigieg also isn’t up on the air yet with television ads or splashy endorsements.

But on Tuesday, Buttigieg, the first Hoosier since Evan Bayh in 2007 to campaign in Iowa, did his best to make his own mark here, began a three-day campaign swing across the state. He rolled out a policy plan for rural America.

IMPORTANTVILLE, along with Indianapolis Monthly, is the first and only Indiana news outlet to cover Buttigieg’s campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire. Paid subscribers to the newsletter made the trip happen. If you want more original reporting on Hoosier politics, including Indiana’s 2020 gubernatorial and Congressional races, as well as exclusive reporting on the Indianapolis’ mayoral contest, you can subscribe below. You can subscribe to Indianapolis Monthly here.

At the fair, Buttigieg drew a large Tuesday-afternoon crowd to the Des Moines Register Soap Box, a fair tradition where presidential candidates get 20 minutes to deliver a shortened version of their stump speech and answer questions from voters.

“We are building a fantastic team on the ground here in Iowa that wants to get to know you, mobilize our supporters, get the message out far and wide—and with your help, we will not go on his show and play his game, we will change the channel completely,” Buttigieg said, referring to President Donald Trump. “Can I look to you for help in doing that?”

Later, he cast his kernel in WHO-TV’s kitschy and unscientific corn-kernel voting, a ritual more indicative of general enthusiasm for a particular candidate than it is an accurate measure of their standing in the state.

By Wednesday, Buttigeg ranked second behind Biden, with 17 percent of the vote to Biden’s 23 percent. The stakes for Buttigieg in Iowa are high: His campaign has said it is a state similar to Indiana, one who should do well in. New Hampshire, though, is potentially a better state for him to win.

The old Iowa saw goes something like this: There are only three tickets out of Iowa. Buttigieg needs one of those tickets. Right now, according to RealClearPolitics, he’s running outside of the top three, at fifth, in a national average of polls. “Running around the country to 18 different states and feeling like you’re a front-runner may feel great, but with the field this big, it gets back to this: Go beat Biden in Iowa or take second,” Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's insurgent Iowa campaign in 2004, told Rolling Stone this month. “Do whatever that takes. Live in small towns in Iowa.”

After leaving the State Fair, Buttigieg headed to southeast Iowa. There, six of the seven counties he’ll visit flipped from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

It was Buttigieg’s 11th trip to the year, and sixth in as many weeks—a sign that the 2020 race for the presidency is heating up. Buttigieg has five months to win over the hearts of Iowa voters, and appears to have a stomach for the long haul. After ordering a root-beer float on Tuesday, he quipped to reporters: “More pork tenderloin for me.”


  • Here’s a list of everything Buttigieg ate Tuesday: A root beer float, a pork chop on a stick, a sausage sandwich, a bacon ball BLT, fried Oreos, chocolate milk, and . patriotically colored slushy.

  • By far the most dark but quintessentially Iowa exchange I witnessed Tuesday was when Buttigieg encountered a woman who claimed to have shaken Bobby Kennedy’s hand in 2016. “So you’re good luck?” he replied. “Not really—he was shot a month later,” she responded. Buttigieg tried to explain the significance of Indiana’s May 1968 primary to the women, but it didn’t register.

  • I asked Buttigieg which state had better tenderloins, Iowa or Indiana. His answer: “I gotta stick with my home state.”

  • It was hard not to notice the difference between how Buttigieg entered the fair, and how Donald Trump did so in 2015: One took public transit, one took a private helicopter.


You can listen to the IN Focus podcast, hosted by Dan Spehler, from this week here.

That’s all for today. Did someone forward this to you? You can subscribe here.