DES MOINES — Pete Buttigieg marched a throng of supporters — a group that started with more than 2,000, said one local police official — through the rainy streets of downtown Des Moines and into Wells Fargo Arena on Friday for Democrats’ biggest political event of the season.
On the way, they passed the city’s convention center, where Joe Biden addressed a much smaller crowd inside a ballroom that was at least a quarter empty before he led them to the Liberty & Justice Celebration over an enclosed bridge connected to the arena.
It was like that this weekend in the first caucus state: Buttigieg going one way, Biden another.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has acknowledged he needs to lure moderate and independent voters away from the 76-year-old former vice president to have any chance at being their party’s nominee for president. Biden was the polling leader in Iowa from this spring through the summer, with Buttigieg more often than not a distant fourth.
Most recent Iowa polling now shows a shift. A New York Times/Siena College survey that landed hours before Friday’s event showed Buttigieg edging Biden for third, but in a tight four-way race with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Buttigieg advisers spent the days leading up to the Liberty & Justice gala — known as the LJ, formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and remembered for how it propelled Barack Obama in 2007 — building hype that their candidate would have an Obama moment. Buttigieg’s crowds showed a strong organization, both in Iowa and nationally, as many supporters came from elsewhere for the pre-LJ festivities. A Buttigieg spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the campaign did not organize the out-of-state travel and only gave LJ tickets to Iowans and some headquarters staff.
"We are seeing enthusiasm for Pete continue to grow throughout Iowa, and that was no more evident than this weekend in Des Moines,” the spokesperson, Chris Meagher, said via email. “Thousands of Iowans joined us at our pre-dinner rally, at the LJ dinner. And hundreds more joined us for a volunteer voter summit Saturday. On stage Friday, Pete was the only candidate Friday who delivered a speech with a big, sweeping vision about an aspirational America.”
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters and a key Biden ally, discounted Buttigieg as a threat to Biden, comparing him to Kamala Harris, the California senator who briefly surged in polls over the summer but now is scaling back her campaign.
“I mean, I recognize that right now — and I mean this with the greatest respect — he’s the flavor of the moment,” Schaitberger told reporters Saturday in Cedar Rapids, where Biden and Buttigieg spoke at a fish fry for Rep. Abby Finkenauer. “We’ve had other flavors of the moment, you know? And some of them have shut down their New Hampshire operations.”
Jamal Brown, a Biden spokesperson, expressed confidence in the state of their campaign. "Across Iowa, we're seeing a groundswell of excitement and support from voters who believe in Vice President Joe Biden’s core values and know he will beat Donald Trump like a drum next November,” he said. “As our momentum builds, we’re laser-focused on recruiting volunteers and precinct captains from his broad coalition statewide. We are not taking anything for granted.”
Much of what happened around the LJ reflected Biden’s recent polling and fundraising struggles. Where other campaigns had signs and supporters lining the blocks around the arena, Biden’s efforts were largely confined indoors. Schaitberger said Saturday that he believed the campaign made a “conscious decision” not to have an outside presence.
Buttigieg, flush with cash, brought in Ben Harper, a nationally known musician, to play his pre-LJ rally. Biden had the Pork Tornadoes, an area cover band. Many of Biden’s supporters seemed more excited about the cash bar and free buffet of hamburger and fried chicken sliders.
“Sometimes you clap when the song is over, guys,” the Pork Tornadoes’ lead singer said to the polite but low-energy audience after a rendition of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” A youth drum line eventually got the crowd going.
Biden spoke for only five minutes at his rally, following much longer remarks from his wife, Jill, and Schaitberger. Afterward, as supporters spilled out into the hallway to head to the LJ, campaign staffers held out stacks of tickets they had yet to unload for the dinner. The ballroom next door, coincidentally, had been reserved for Buttigieg supporters without tickets.
Inside the arena, Buttigieg supporters accounted for the largest cheering section for any candidate, phonetically spelling out his last name with big glowing letters: BOOT EDGE EDGE. Going for the Obama link his staff had angled for all week, Buttigieg opened his speech, the first of the night, by recalling his first time in Iowa, knocking on doors for a “young man with a funny name.” The newly overt play for the Obama mantle is stark, given Biden’s two terms as Obama’s vice president and his own efforts to present himself as the heir to Obama’s legacy.
"I'm here to launch the era that must come next,” Buttigieg told the LJ audience, taking a subtle shot at Biden and the race’s other septuagenarian polling leaders. “Because in order to win, and in order to lead, it's going to take a lot more than the political warfare we have come to accept from Washington, DC."
Unlike his recent ideological clashes with Warren over Medicare for All, Buttigieg’s case against Biden is mainly generational. (He and Biden have similar, incremental plans for expanding health care coverage.) Later in his speech, Buttigieg made a more pointed case to be the alternative to Biden and Warren: “Progressives, moderates, and Republicans of conscience who are ready for a change, the time has come.”
Biden offered a strong and fiery version of his usual campaign speech, but one with notably fewer Obama allusions than usual. Where Buttigieg had the glowing signs, Biden had a sea of firefighters wearing bright yellow T-shirts and making nearly as much noise.
According to a decibel count by Iowa Starting Line, Buttigieg earned the loudest applause for any of the 13 candidates who spoke Friday night. Biden was a close second.
“I drive down the road to the arena and I see 400 signs and their blinking lights, I mean, I give them credit,” Schaitberger said of Buttigieg’s campaign. “Probably half of that gang was from Indiana.”
A veteran of caucus and presidential politics, Schaitberger acknowledged his organization flies and buses in outsiders. “But who I’m bringing in, if you will, are going to be those who will work in the field, understand the process,” and have gone through the union’s political training academy, he said. He also plans to be in Iowa almost full-time come January.
“I understand the polling can measure energy, excitement, size of rallies, number of clappers in the air,” Schaitberger said. “But I’ve done this long enough in this state over many presidential cycles — that doesn’t necessarily translate into what occurs that night starting at 8 o’clock, on Feb. 3, for people who have to make a four- or five-hour commitment to the caucus process.”
Schaitberger’s skepticism aside, Buttigieg has 21 offices and more than 100 staff in Iowa, with more to come. Biden has 23 offices and about 100 staff. J.D. Scholten, a Democratic congressional candidate from the northern part of the state who spoke at Buttigieg’s pre-LJ rally and visited other candidates’ events, told BuzzFeed News the Buttigieg ground operation is credible.
“We’re on our first 39 county tour, going to towns under 1,000 people,” Scholten said via text message Saturday. “The campaign I regularly see in these rural areas is Pete’s campaign.”