When Pete Buttigieg walked onstage at this month’s Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, the crowd exploded into perhaps their loudest cheer for any of the 20 presidential candidates there that night.
He still commands attention, and inside that room there was real affection from voters who will matter soon.
But six months have passed since Buttigieg’s breakout moment at a CNN town hall briefly propelled him from obscurity to serious contender, and this summer, he seems stuck in fifth place. Now, after a fundraising period in which he led all rivals, including former vice president Joe Biden and several senators with national followings, his team is working to build Buttigieg into a sustainable force capable of winning the Democratic nomination.
“The first phase was just getting people to understand how to pronounce this impossible to pronounce Maltese last name,” Lis Smith, a senior adviser to the campaign who has been with Buttigieg from the start, told BuzzFeed News. “The second phase was to blow everyone out of the water on fundraising — everyone out of the fucking water. Done. Done. Now the third phase is blow them out of the water with our organization and our organizational abilities.”
The strategy, as explained in interviews this week with Smith and two other top aides, is to catch up with other campaign organizations in the early caucus and primary states and wait for candidates with less money to drop. Buttigieg’s paid staff has grown to more than 300 — up from 30 just a few months ago — with about 70 on the ground in Iowa and 50 in New Hampshire. New field offices are scheduled to open across both states next week. And the campaign has ramped up its digital advertising, using platforms such as Spotify.
One move not under consideration: attacking Biden, who leads in most polls, or the others standing between him and Buttigieg. Past primaries have shown little benefit for those who target a frontrunner. A nasty feud between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt created space for eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry to win Iowa in 2004. Chris Christie wounded Marco Rubio with a slashing attack during a 2016 debate in New Hampshire, but Christie dropped out of the Republican race days later after a poor finish in that state’s primary.
“I witnessed the 2004 primary and the dynamics there with Gephardt and Dean,” Smith said, “and I think that any presidential campaign that doesn’t understand a multiway primary and how [going negative] will affect their long-term standing is probably not going to be the campaign that will take on Donald Trump.”
Buttigieg’s decision not to go negative is a tactic. Sometimes an apparently second-tier figure can stand aside while their rivals destroy one another, and step past them, as Kerry did in 2004. But it also reflects a bet on what both Democratic voters and the American electorate want, in terms both of policy and style: leadership whose primary orientation isn’t toward partisan confrontation and that holds out the hope of national unity. That is: a throwback to the hopes of the early Obama years.
Among Buttigieg supporters, donors, and uncommitted party leaders who spoke to BuzzFeed News this week, there was no sense of the antsiness that often sets in when a campaign cools off or stagnates. Most seemed to still be riding the high of how quickly a 37-year-old gay mayor from a small Midwest city asserted himself as a factor in the race.
“Absolutely zero panic,” said one donor, Alex Slater, who is helping the campaign raise money from other contributors.
But these Democrats are eager to see how Buttigieg’s next moves play.
“The challenge you have with a candidate like Buttigieg, is you were the star of this race, the unexpected wild card who came out of left field,” said Rufus Gifford, a former fundraiser for Barack Obama who has donated the maximum amount to Buttigieg and others. “You can only sustain that for so long. Here we are, six months after his CNN town hall, where he blew so many of us away. The Time magazine cover is four months ago now. The historical nature of the candidacy has worn off a bit. You have to keep that fire lit, and that’s really hard to do.”
The then-barebones Buttigieg campaign went into the CNN town hall in March aware that a breakout moment could elevate him in a crowded field. The goal then was much simpler: attracting enough donors to qualify for the first round of presidential debates. But even they were surprised with how quickly things happened. Buttigieg’s CNN performance, in which he blasted Donald Trump’s “porn star presidency,” made him an overnight success.
“What was most surprising was just how it wasn’t just one and done,” campaign manager Mike Schmuhl told BuzzFeed News. “It kind of catapulted and launched us there.”
Just as the summer debate season began, trouble back home in South Bend curbed Buttigieg’s momentum. A police shooting that left a black man dead renewed questions about Buttigieg’s already tense relationships with communities of color and called attention to polls that in some cases showed him with zero support among black voters. But some supporters saw a silver lining in the timing: They believe it kept Buttigieg from peaking too soon.
The “unfortunate situation in South Bend … slowed him down from being too hot too fast,” said Rich Eychaner, an influential business leader in Iowa who has given the maximum to Buttigieg.
Gifford compared Buttigieg’s summer slowdown with a slump Obama endured.
“This time in 2007 was when the Obama campaign felt the most vulnerable,” he said. “And then look what happens a few months later.” Obama won the Iowa caucuses, setting up his historic White House victory.
Buttigieg has stepped up his travel in Iowa, with seven trips to the state in seven weeks, including the Wing Ding. Activists there talk him up in the same breath as Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders as those having a legitimate shot at winning the caucuses.
“Every place I’ve seen him, there’s an energy there — a youthful energy,” J.D. Scholten, a Democratic congressional candidate from northern Iowa who has hosted many of the presidential hopefuls, told BuzzFeed News at the Wing Ding. “So I think there’s something there. I see him being there at the end.”
Many Democrats are preparing for the possibility of a primary fight that drags well into late spring and possibly into the summer convention in Milwaukee. A candidate like Buttigieg who has proven capable of raising big money could have the resources to hang on longer than others.
“My own take is that we’ll probably have the Sanders and Warren supporters consolidate at some point,” Evan Bayh, a former Indiana senator who flirted with a presidential run in 2008 and plans to donate to Buttigieg and other candidates, told BuzzFeed News. “At some point you’ll have a candidate of the left. [Biden] will be the candidate of the center left. There’s still room for a player to be named later. Pete was that candidate for a while. Then it was Kamala Harris. There’s room on that stage for one more.”
But Buttigieg still needs more people to decide he is their candidate.
Eychaner, who has publicly committed to Buttigieg, said he received calls from other campaigns requesting meetings while their candidates were in Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair.
“I say I’m backing Mayor Pete, to try and get off the phone quickly,” Eychaner said. “I’ve had some say, ‘Well, do you have a second choice?’ I say he’s the guy I like, and I’m sticking with him.”
The campaign had lagged behind others in organization in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key early states like Nevada, South Carolina, and California. Next week’s ramp-up signals that catching up is an achievable priority, aides said.
“Every campaign has to make strategic decisions about resourcing and when and how to do this, but this is August,” Jess O’Connell, a former Democratic National Committee CEO who recently joined Buttigieg as a senior adviser to lead early state efforts, told BuzzFeed News. “Fall is when we feel it’s the right time to turn it on. People shouldn’t sleep on us.”
There are risks in patience as a strategy.
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressional representative from Texas, used strong early fundraising as a buttress against sagging poll numbers in the spring, but raised just a fraction of his eye-popping total in the second quarter. And polls for a while now have shown Biden, Sanders, and Warren firmly in the top three, with Sen. Kamala Harris — who had a momentary rise and subsequently quick drop-off after attacking Biden in the first debate — in fourth.
Buttigieg hasn’t gained ground as those ahead of him lose it, and recent polling from Morning Consult found he was not the second choice for Biden, Sanders, Warren, or Harris voters. Some of Buttigieg’s backers also believe the presence of other relatively buzzy candidates, such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, have cut into his support.
But campaign aides take comfort in other data beneath the topline poll numbers. The Morning Consult poll showed that Buttigieg had the lowest unfavorable rating among the top five contenders while also being the least known of that group, suggesting room to grow.
“I’m pretty sure Pete believes it’s there for the taking,” said Mel Hall, an Indiana Democrat who’s known Buttigieg for years and ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year with the mayor’s endorsement. “No one was predicting South Bend, Indiana, would be on the political map. I don’t know which jump is bigger — from that to now, or from now to being the nominee.”