‘Reminds me of home’: Pete Buttigieg tests local pitch as he fights to stand out in Iowa

Posted at 12:35 PM, Jul 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-04 14:35:00-04

As Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg jogged through the Fourth of July parade here in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Thursday, the Indiana mayor worked his pseudo-regional ties into numerous brief conversations with parade-goers.

“This reminds me of home,” he said often as he jogged from group to group.

The night before, when he took the stage in a sweltering hot Sioux City gym, the mayor thanked the audience for the warm welcome.

“It makes me feel like home,” he added.

And in June, standing on a back porch in Des Moines, Buttigieg told those gathered, “I always feel so at home here.”

“I think so many answers are going to come from our part of the country,” he said.

Central to Buttigieg’s campaign is the message that the Midwest — an area that largely moved toward President Donald Trump and Republicans in 2016 — should be essential to the Democratic Party’s future success.

And to do so, Buttigieg has been touting his cultural connection to the first-in-the-nation caucus state by highlighting the similarities — both in culture and geography — between Northern Indiana, where he was born, raised and now lives, and certain parts of Iowa.

“I hope it allows me to be relatively fluent in Iowan, you know, just relating what we are used to back home to what’s going on here,” he told CNN in June. “I think there’s a similar kind of ethic in terms of how people talk to each other.”

Buttigieg added that his cultural ties to Iowa could help him “develop a sense of relational organizing that’s going to be an important part” of his strategy in Iowa.

“I think it also helps … when the field is so crowded, crowded almost to the point of people feeling like it’s cluttered,” Buttigieg said. “And each of us seeks to present something unique, but I think, coming from the background that I do — a midsized city, millennial mayor from industrial Midwest — is about as different as it gets, not only from the current President but from most of our competitors.”

Buttigieg takes off

Before he was a top-tier candidate who could raise $30 million in six short months, Buttigieg was just another unknown Democrat with presidential aspirations looking to make a splash in Iowa.

To do so, he fell back on his Midwestern roots. Standing before a progressive crowd in Iowa days before Christmas in 2018, Buttigieg introduced himself with a markedly local appeal to how close he lives to the Hawkeye State.

“You leave our house, take two left turns, drive six hours and you’re here,” he said with a smile and a laugh.

Since he told this story, Buttigieg’s campaign has taken off — both nationally and in Iowa. Buttigieg dropped the pseudo-local pitch in Iowa during much of that rise, instead leaning on his record in South Bend, his time serving in the Navy and his view of politics, which blends progressive policies and Midwestern pragmatism, to introduce himself to the state.

That changed last month, when he again began to make his local pitch.

To a crowd in Cedar Rapids last month, Buttigieg said his rise and candidacy could show the Democratic establishment how important it will be for “voices from the Midwest to play a role in our party.”

“Thank you so much for making us feel right at home,” he said. “And I feel right at home here.”

Buttigieg is not the first politician to pitch himself as a pseudo-local in Iowa — he isn’t even the only one in the current field of Democratic candidates — but Democratic operatives said they see a lot of value for Buttigieg in casting himself as someone who is culturally fluent in Iowa as he runs against candidates from the East and West coasts.

“There’s a Midwestern comfort with other Midwesterners,” said JD Scholten, a Sioux City Democrat who ran for Congress in 2018 and introduced Buttigieg on Wednesday. “I do the same thing when I go somewhere new that feels like home to me.”

Scholten joked, “I’m sure if his grandma, great-aunt or Chasten’s relative was born here, we would hear all about it.”

Matt Paul, Hillary Clinton’s Iowa state director during the 2016 caucuses, said there is “no downside” for Buttigieg to push his pseudo-local roots.

“Iowa sure is more South Bend than it is Miami or New York,” Paul said.

Politicians as Iowans

Politicians pitching themselves as local — or at least culturally similar — to Iowa is not new in presidential politics.

Democratic then-Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut moved his family to Iowa during the 2008 primary. Democratic then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York would sometimes comment on the similarities between rural New York state and rural Iowa during the same primary campaign.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is doing it during this campaign, regularly telling Iowa audiences that she can “see Iowa from my porch.”

“I don’t think that alone will make someone vote for me,” Klobuchar told CNN. “But here are the reasons: There are a ton of people in Iowa who have family or friends in Minnesota. And I always urge all of them, call people in Minnesota, they know me best.”

Marianne Williamson‘s campaign announced earlier this year that the author had moved to Des Moines ahead of the 2020 caucuses.

Polls show Buttigieg has gained traction in Iowa. A CNN poll in early June found that 14% of Iowans who are likely to participate in the caucuses support Buttigieg, landing him near Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Tuesday found Buttigieg giving back some of that support and falling to 6%.

Buttigieg’s rapid rise has forced his campaign to quickly build an operation around the once-unknown mayor. Buttigieg’s campaign announced 30 additional hires in Iowa in late June, bringing on a political director, a data director, an operations director, an organizing director and two dozen organizers to what had been a four-person team in early May.

While that growth brings Buttigieg to nearly 40 staffers in Iowa, it comes far later than some candidates — like Warren, Sanders and others — built out their caucus operations in the state.