Skip To Content
BuzzFeed News Home Reporting To You

Pete Buttigieg Is Winning. But Does He Have A Phase 5?

The former mayor has had a stunning start to the Democratic primary. But he now has serious issues to deal with, starting with money.

Posted on February 13, 2020, at 10:05 a.m. ET

Joseph Prezioso / Getty Images

NASHUA, New Hampshire — The weight of his presidential campaign hung on one week in February. He needed to win in Iowa — the kind of stunning, historic victory that would validate his name across the country. Then he needed to go to New Hampshire and prove himself there, too.

Pete Buttigieg did both of those things. But an extraordinary two weeks have left the 38-year-old former mayor without a clear path to the presidency.

After raising tens of millions of dollars last year, his campaign is facing unusual financial pressures after spending much of that money in and on Iowa, leaving some of his organizing staff uncertain if they still have jobs. And in the contests ahead, he will compete against two well-funded opponents, a steady Bernie Sanders and a strengthening Michael Bloomberg, as he faces an imminent test of his greatest vulnerability: support from voters of color.

Thanks to a chaotic caucus night and a near tie with Sanders, Buttigieg’s apparent Iowa victory did not deliver the massive fundraising boost a winner would expect out of the first, much-hyped caucus. And it did not immediately elevate him exponentially with the voters of color who will decide the next two states on the calendar, Nevada and South Carolina. On the campaign trail, the candidate’s answer to people concerned about his struggles with black voters often hinged on Iowa, and the idea that a victory there would open doors for him with black voters — just as it did, his aides said, for Barack Obama in 2008.

In the wake of Iowa, at least one poll showed it was a different moderate candidate who managed to steal away a bigger chunk of black Democrats from Biden: Bloomberg, a billionaire late entry who is now expected to be a serious threat by the time Super Tuesday rolls around. And in New Hampshire, where he came within reach of beating Sanders on Tuesday, an unexpected surge and third-place finish by yet another moderate, Amy Klobuchar, hurt Buttigieg’s chances to claim the party’s center.

Buttigieg has early victories under his belt and slightly more delegates than any other candidate, but for a campaign that rallies its supporters around a methodical path forward — Iowa marked, in its own semi-serious Twitter parlance, the initiation of “phase 4” — it’s an unusually tenuous position.

On the night a coding error derailed the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg declared victory anyway. In a sense, it was the obvious choice for the campaign: Even in the confusion of that night, Buttigieg’s advisers had some confidence he would lead the field in state delegate equivalents — the metric that traditionally determines the winner in Iowa’s complex caucus process — but after funneling the large share of their time, money, and staff into the state, they felt they needed to leave Iowa as winners.

Still, the dayslong delay offset their apparent victory with questions about an opaque caucus process and a poorly built smartphone app, stunting what could have been a massive fundraising opportunity. Sanders eventually declared victory as well, based on the raw vote total, further complicating any clean success story.

Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, a cochair of Buttigieg’s campaign, suggested the Iowa aftermath affected the campaign’s anticipated bounces in fundraising, polling, and enthusiasm.

“It’s hard to measure. What do those three bounces look like with a Tuesday morning headline? We got about four days of bump,” Brown said in an interview, acknowledging that each day’s bounce was likely smaller than the day before.

Buttigieg’s campaign announced it raised $4 million in the three days after the caucus showing, though there’s no clear picture of how much cash remains on hand after a heavy investment in the first two states. It was a strong number, but less than Klobuchar's campaign said it raised in the wake of her debate performance later in the week. (She also announced that she raised $2.5 million in a matter of hours after coming in third in New Hampshire. Buttigieg as of Thursday morning had shared no fundraising specifics post-primary.)

Some on the massive Buttigieg team in Iowa — which hit its peak at about 170 staffers, many of whom moved to Iowa for months to help build a field and political organization from scratch — are now waiting to see whether they will have jobs on the campaign in other states.

Dozens of field organizers were told their jobs were ending for “budgetary reasons,” according to two Iowa Democrats close to the Buttigieg operation. “When he says plainly we have to do well in both of these states, or there is no way we can win, then we probably shouldn't be surprised at where they are financially,” one of the Democrats said.

Asked about the Iowa staff, Buttigieg spokesperson Ben Halle said the campaign was following redeployment and transition guidelines set by its staff’s union contract. “When positions in Iowa ended after the caucuses, we've been offering new positions as they become available as directed by the collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “We're glad to have already offered the vast majority of them new positions on our team."

On Wednesday, the Buttigieg campaign announced plans to double its staff in Nevada, another caucus state where an organized field operation is key to a candidate’s competitive edge.

Joseph Prezioso / Getty Images

Susie Tompkins Buell, one of the party’s biggest donors and a central figure helping raise money for Buttigieg, said that the Iowa success has “recharged” the community of well-connected wealthy Democrats who can raise large sums as so-called bundlers.

“People are coming back for more,” said Buell, who along with her husband Mark Buell has hosted a number of high-dollar fundraisers for Buttigieg in San Francisco.

“He still has room to grow. His investors, they look at it as investing, not bundling — and honestly, I don’t know how to put this in words that don’t sound ‘woo woo’ — they have this sort of feeling of really believing in something. People feel that. I feel that myself.”

But another major Buttigieg bundler said he had expected a bump out of Iowa in the money he was able to raise — and hadn’t yet seen one.

Money will be an even greater challenge for Buttigieg now that the race is narrowing in part around Sanders, whose small-dollar donors are a reliable source of tens of millions of dollars through recurring donations, and Bloomberg, who is spending hundreds of millions from his own fortune.

The Iowa spending plan was sound, Michael Halle, a senior strategist on Buttigieg’s campaign, said this week in an interview.

"Just think about it,” Halle said. “The thing no one would have wanted, and you and your colleagues would have destroyed us over, is if we had $15 million sitting in the bank and we didn’t do well in Iowa and New Hampshire and the argument for the candidacy starts to go away. ... We’ve had great fundraising since the caucus and frankly even in the weeks prior to the caucus. We are confident we are going to have the resources to go compete. But no one that is not self-funding is going to have resources if they can’t continue to prove that they can win."

The campaign as of Wednesday had more than 100 paid staff in Nevada — including an influx of former Iowa organizers — and 55 in South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 29.

Beyond Nevada and South Carolina, the campaign is also deploying resources to the Super Tuesday states that vote March 3. Buttigieg will visit five of those states — including California, a prime destination for both delegates and raising cash — over the next two weeks. The campaign has staff in every Super Tuesday state and grassroots volunteer teams in every congressional district in those states, an organization built to help boost delegate totals. The campaign has announced a six-figure advertising push targeting seven Super Tuesday and other later-voting states.

"Pete’s going to have to go in, and we’re going to have to do this with the media as well and really close the deal,” Michael Halle, the senior strategist, said. “And that means not taking anything for granted — really making sure that we’re getting into communities, especially communities of color, and letting Pete be Pete and get in front of people and make his argument. What we have seen consistently is that when that happens, our support grows."

Campaign advisers aren’t planning a major overhaul to Buttigieg’s approach or overall message, which in the first two states involved the candidate’s pointed overtures to “future former Republicans.” Buttigieg presents himself — as a married millennial man from a red Midwest state — as a candidate of generational change and ideological compromise.

But Buttigieg, who frequently acknowledges his shortcomings with voters of color, also debuted some sharper lines in his Tuesday night speech in New Hampshire clearly meant to telegraph the shift to more diverse states. The multilingual candidate addressed a portion of his remarks to Dreamers in Spanish. He decried voter suppression and spoke of welcoming “new allies to our movement” — a movement that reaches “into church basements and barbershops, into universities and union halls.” The next morning, his campaign announced support from state Rep. JA Moore, Buttigieg’s first endorsement from a black lawmaker in South Carolina.

Brown, the campaign cochair and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said there will be efforts to reach faith-based organizations and historically black colleges and universities. Brown also expects the campaign to emphasize Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan, a series of proposals to address systemic racism.

“Consistency is important,” Brown said. “People in South Carolina can hear what he's saying whether he is in South Bend or Cedar Rapids or Nashua, New Hampshire. We’ll tailor the message to make sure we’re speaking to specific concerns, but it will be consistent.”

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

The theory that voters of color will respond to Buttigieg once he’s proven himself a winner and once he spends more time in their communities remains largely untested. One rival campaign, citing internal data from the only six Iowa precincts where its models showed a majority of caucusgoers were expected to be black, found that Biden and Sanders far outperformed Buttigieg in those precincts.

The Buttigieg campaign has preferred to emphasize a mashup of numbers that show him winning at least 15% of state delegate equivalents in precincts where more than 20% of the people are of color. (Iowa overall is more than 90% white.) An Iowa entrance poll from ABC News found Sanders with a big lead among nonwhite caucusgoers, with Buttigieg and Biden bunched together in a distant second tier.

"There are going to be big swaths of people that are up for grabs,” said Michael Halle. “We’ve seen time and time again that when we can get in front of those people, and people get a sense of Pete’s brand and who he is and what he’s about, they like him."

National surveys since Iowa show Buttigieg improving with voters of color: from 0% black support pre-Iowa to 4% post-Iowa in a Quinnipiac poll; from 1% nonwhite support to 8% in a Monmouth poll — the largest jump for any candidate, Bloomberg included, in that category. But single-digit support is not conducive to a winning coalition.

“I don't think it’s been a lack of effort on Pete’s part,” Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Biden campaign cochair, told BuzzFeed News. “I think African Americans are aware of what’s at stake. They’re reluctant to nominate the mayor of a small city to go up against Trump.”

Richmond has encouraged Biden to make such contrasts. Over the weekend, the campaign dropped a video portraying Buttigieg’s mayoral duties as small when stacked up against Biden’s record. The attack annoyed Buttigieg and his supporters, who accused Biden of belittling smaller cities.

“I was hurt by it,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, who canvassed for Buttigieg in New Hampshire.

“You're really talking about a large portion of the public that has no idea who Pete Buttigieg is today,” Whaley added. “What I know is that when audiences of color get to know him, they like what they see. While Pete’s record has been out there — as it should be, how he’s done in South Bend — there’s been very little coverage of the other candidates on diversity issues. I can’t wait for that.”

Buttigieg’s campaign is itself now looking for more coverage. The campaign, which began its ascent by getting the then-unknown Buttigieg as much free media as possible to boost his name recognition, is again foisting the candidate onto morning news shows, flooding TV over the last two weeks without needing to pay for it.

Often punctual even when on a packed schedule of rallies and town halls, Buttigieg was later than usual the day before the New Hampshire primary and had an afternoon free of campaign stops following a morning meet-and-greet in Plymouth. NBC News’ Chuck Todd was among those waiting to interview Buttigieg after that event. And actor Kevin Costner, on hand to add some celebrity to Buttigieg’s final night of campaigning, dashed out of a Milford forum early to do a local radio interview Buttigieg’s staff had arranged for him.

It’s this type of free media that could sustain Buttigieg if he has to cut back on paid advertising, if the resources spent on Iowa and New Hampshire are not quickly or sufficiently replenished.

“Fresh off our huge night last night, Pete sat down this morning with @Morning_Joe, @NewDay, @JudyWoodruff,” Chris Meagher, Buttigieg’s national press secretary, tweeted Wednesday morning, hours after the New Hampshire results. Meagher then tweeted a list of nine local TV interviews Buttigieg did, covering Las Vegas, Charleston, South Carolina, several Super Tuesday states, and Pennsylvania — which doesn’t vote until April 28.

Rather than rush to Nevada or South Carolina on Wednesday morning after his second-place New Hampshire finish, Buttigieg rushed to TV.


ADVERTISEMENT