ANKENY, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg isn’t a Republican. But he’s thinking like one as his presidential campaign tries to engineer a strong finish next week in the first Democratic caucuses.
His closing schedule is heavy on Iowa counties that four years ago flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. His closing argument is an assurance that Bernie Sanders is too liberal for his taste, combined with a pitch for “future former Republicans.” His team on the ground counts at least 45 precinct captains as recent Republican converts and is quick to brag — with a bit of Trumpian flair — about the big crowds Buttigieg is drawing in small Republican towns.
“It’s a demonstrable example of the general election candidate Pete would be,” Michael Halle, a senior adviser to Buttigieg’s campaign, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “The notion that we have a candidate who could go to and be at home in the Des Moines suburbs the same way he’s at home in Tama or Vinton or Keokuk is required to beat Trump in the fall.”
“We’re seeing real results,” Halle added. “At every single event we go to there is at least one interaction where someone goes up to our organizers and says they were a Republican.”
A core part of Sanders’ argument is that the Vermont senator can expand the Democratic electorate — pull in nonvoters or people who may have fallen for Trump’s anti-establishment promises. Buttigieg is taking a different tack and suggesting that his candidacy and platform could expand out the party’s electorate on the right.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is also trying to win back voters who may have fled to Trump in 2016 and is not alone in advocating a more moderate course. Former vice president Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — his two closest ideological rivals in the race — emphasize their crossover appeal and bipartisan backgrounds in Washington.
And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s been more ideologically aligned with Sanders, is making a new electability case by highlighting Trump voters who now back her.
But Buttigieg has been most explicit with the strategy. At a town hall forum Thursday night in Ankeny — the Des Moines suburb that Republican Marco Rubio memorably made the base of his Iowa operation four years ago — questions from the audience, as they often are, were submitted in writing before disappearing in a fishbowl. When the fishbowl appeared on stage later in the hands of a volunteer, the questions tied neatly into Buttigieg’s message and the audience he hopes will hear it. One allowed him to talk about his military experience, another to discuss his plans to appeal to evangelical voters.
“I think there’s a historic opportunity to engage voters of faith,” Buttigieg said on the latter. “We should reach out, because I think there’s a lot of folks sitting in the pews right now looking around wondering, ‘Wait a minute, is my faith supposed to mean that I support this?’ What about, I was hungry and you fed me? What about, I was a stranger and you welcomed me?”
As for the “future former Republicans,” Buttigieg has been testing variations on that theme since at least last fall, when he offered the line during the Democratic debate in Atlanta. He sharpened the message this week, first by returning to Fox News — the cable network partial to Trump and the Republican Party — for a town hall forum televised from Iowa. Both Sanders and Klobuchar have participated in a Fox News town hall, but Buttigieg is the only Democratic candidate to do one twice. And by scheduling one in the final days before the caucuses, he signaled how important the network’s conservative viewers — and moderates who just may like the idea that he’s trying to reach those viewers — are to his campaign in the state.
“I am convinced,” Buttigieg said in a closing argument that conveyed an everything-to-everyone pragmatism, “that we are going to — beginning right here in Iowa — change what people think is possible. That we can send a message to people who are telling us that we have to choose between our head and our heart, that we have to choose between what it takes to govern and what it takes to win, or that we have to choose between unity and boldness in this country. I don’t think we have to choose. I don't think we can choose, because I don't think we can get any one of those things unless we get all of them, and this is our chance to turn the page.”
That line has since been a staple in Buttigieg’s stump speech. And Thursday brought a new escalation meant to paint Biden and Sanders, for different reasons, as poor choices to take on Trump in the fall. After weeks of issuing subtle, no-names rebukes of an older generation of politicians, including during his Fox News appearance, Buttigieg graduated to a pointed critique of Biden’s play-it-safe style and Sanders’ doctrinaire brand of democratic socialism.
“We’ve got some respectful but serious differences about what it’s going to take,” Buttigieg said in Decorah. “I hear Vice President Biden saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new. But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Donald Trump who is new in kind.”
“Then I hear Sen. Sanders calling for a kind of politics that says you've got to go all the way here and nothing else counts. And it's coming at the very moment when we actually have a historic majority, not just aligned around what it is we're against, but agreeing on what it is we're for. A majority ready to make sure that the public sector steps up and delivers health care — just not so sure about the idea of forcing everybody onto that public plan. A majority that's ready for a game-changing transformation in the affordability of college, but not so sure about the idea of covering every last penny for the tuition of the children of millionaires and billionaires.”
Later, in Ankeny, Buttigieg urged voters to “leave the politics of the past in the past.”
Kurt Meyer, who chairs the Mitchell County Democratic Party and recently announced his plan to caucus for Warren, questioned a strategy that relies on Republican defectors.
“Many [a] campaign has theorized that success would be brought about by all the new, previously unheard-from people who would show up at the right time and do the right thing,” Meyer wrote in an email. “Very, very few people have ridden such a strategy successfully into office. Knowing that the Super Bowl is on Sunday, it’s a bit akin to saying ‘my team doesn’t have to block or tackle…we have a NEW strategy that will make those old essentials obsolete.’
“To which I say, oh really?!?”