CLINTON, Iowa — On the day House Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump last week, Pete Buttigieg was being grilled by Iowa voters on other subjects: how to loosen the grip of the rich on government, how to restore science to policymaking, how to reduce child poverty.
At an event in eastern Iowa, a woman rose to say that her four adult children were “stuck” in life, unable to afford what she had in the 1980s when a $10-an-hour job paid for rent, utilities and an annual vacation.
“How can the federal government help our young people that want to do what’s right and to get to those things that their parents worked so hard for?” the voter asked.
This is the conversation Buttigieg wants to have. Boasting a huge financial war chest but struggling in the polls, Buttigieg is staking his presidential candidacy on Iowa, and particularly on connecting with rural white voters who want to talk about personal concerns more than impeachment. In doing so, Buttigieg is also trying to show how Democrats can win back counties that flipped from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016 — there are more of them in Iowa than any other state — by focusing, he said, on “the things that are going to affect folks’ lives in a concrete way.”
Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who shot to prominence in the spring but has since slipped, has determined that while television news and many in the political class focus on impeachment, he has a shot at trying to organize his way to a top-tier finish in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
Thanks to a nearly $25 million fundraising bounty in the spring, which he topped up with a respectable $19.1 million over the summer, as reported Tuesday, Buttigieg has been able to invest in a gold-plated ground game in Iowa as he seeks to challenge two candidates who have been organizing for longer here, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“We’re entering the stage where the rubber meets the road,” Buttigieg said in an interview as his four-day trip wrapped up last week. “In order to settle the question of electability, the best thing you can do is perform well in an actual election. Iowa’s of course the first. And so that’s where a lot of our focus is going to go.”
Grassroots organizing is essential to a strong caucus finish. Word-of-mouth about a candidate is often what turns people out on a cold February night. The Buttigieg campaign, which opened its bus tour to live-tweeting journalists in an effort to set itself apart, is also road-testing a somewhat novel approach to organizing. Its Iowa volunteers first contact friends and family members rather than cold-calling lists of registered voters, who are now so bombarded they ignore unknown numbers.
“When we’re doing a traditional phone bank, you’ll be lucky if you have a contact rate of about 15%,” said Brendan McPhillips, the Buttigieg Iowa state director. The campaign’s “relational organizing” volunteers reach 50% of the people they try to contact, he said.
Buttigieg’s Iowa sweep coincided with the opening of 20 field offices and the hiring of nearly 100 staff members statewide, as robust a build-out as that of Warren and Sanders.
His efforts to a large degree are aimed past Iowa’s Democratic-leaning cities toward the 31 counties that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump, most of which are along the Mississippi River and in central Iowa. Buttigieg visited five on his latest trip, when he pitched himself as a fellow Midwesterner.
“I believe it’s time for a voice from the middle of the country that everybody keeps writing their articles about,” he said in Dubuque County, where Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Research suggests that Obama-Trump voters were late deciders in 2016 — many skipped the caucuses — and they are focused less on ideology and more on their families’ slippage from the middle class, like the woman in Clinton who pressed Buttigieg about her children.
“When you ask them to distinguish between a Democrat and a Republican, they think the words are meaningless,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa, who has held focus groups of Obama-Trump voters who are undecided about 2020.
“They want to know what you’re going to do about the price of prescription drugs, or how’s my kid going to get a better job,” he added. “It gets very real very quickly.”
Buttigieg is positioning himself as a candidate to appeal to voters for whom Warren is too far left and former Vice President Joe Biden is compromised by his years in Washington, and may become collateral damage of the impeachment fight.
“I think that’s where most voters are,” he said, drawing a contrast between himself and the two national polling leaders. “They want bolder ideas than they’ve seen out of the party in a long time. But they also want some kind of antidote to the polarization that we’re in. And that leads to a different place than the VP or Sen. Warren.”
National Democrats have held a sometimes combative debate over whether to write off white rural voters, who some argue will never abandon Trump, and instead motivate urban Democratic-leaning voters who did not turn out in 2016.
But that argument has to some extent been rendered moot as Iowa returns to its customary leading role in the primary contest. Buttigieg and his leading rivals have all developed rural policy papers and committed to itineraries that take them through oceans of ripening corn and whizzing wind turbines. Sanders campaigned last week in six Obama-Trump counties in eastern Iowa as part of a “Bernie Beats Trump” tour.
“If we’re going to start moving the state back to where I think it should be, we can’t just win in Des Moines and Iowa City and Cedar Rapids,” said Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor and agriculture secretary in Iowa. “To be brutally honest, we will not win a U.S. Senate seat, we will not win the presidency, if we don’t start doing better in the rural parts of the state.”
Warren, whose early and aggressive Iowa ground game is credited with helping her move into first place in a recent key state poll, has a statewide rural coordinator, John Russell.
A onetime farmer and stump-grinder from Ohio, Russell has picked up the message of the former Obama strategist David Axelrod that Democrats don’t need to win rural America, just cut into the margins that Republicans run up.
“If we did 5% or 10% better across rural areas, our government would look completely different than it does now,” Russell said.
Buttigieg was in fourth place in the Iowa poll this month by The Des Moines Register and media partners. It showed Warren with 22% of likely caucusgoers, edging ahead of Biden at 20%, though within the margin of error. Sanders won 11%.
Buttigieg dropped to 9% from 15% in the same poll in June, although he was viewed favorably by a higher share of voters than all candidates but Warren, suggesting he has room to grow support.
Nearly all the top Democratic campaigns believe that investing in grassroots infrastructure for the caucuses will pay dividends for the eventual nominee in the general election, which will be necessary if the party hopes to put the state in play in 2020.
Although Trump carried Iowa by 9 percentage points, a more padded margin than Ohio, North Carolina or Arizona, recent data suggests Iowa could be returning to battleground status next year.
The president’s approval rating here is 39%, lower than in the swing states of Wisconsin and Michigan and about the same as in Pennsylvania, according to recent state polls.
In the midterm elections, Democrats won the statewide House vote in Iowa 50% to 46%, similar to results in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“I think we’ve returned to purple status — probably reddish purple,” said Link.
He and Judge, who are unaligned in the caucuses, founded the group Focus on Rural America, which encourages Democrats to listen to voters in sparsely populated counties and develop policies aimed at them.
Judge has led 2020 candidates on tours of ethanol plants, which besides buying more than half the state’s corn crop are a source of well-paying rural jobs.
Democrats see a recent decision by the Trump administration on ethanol as potentially loosening the president’s support among farmers, who have largely stuck with him even as his trade war with China has pushed commodity prices downward.
“I’ve seen a lot of corn growers really have a change of heart,” said J.D. Scholten, a Democrat running for congress in northwest Iowa.
Scholten, who nearly upset Rep. Steve King last year in the state’s most conservative region, has become a guiding figure for 2020 Democrats looking to claw back rural support. He is planning a “Don’t Forget About Us” tour in October, inviting presidential candidates to join him on visits to towns of fewer than 1,000 people.
“We can’t just win the 50 counties in America that venture capitalists invest in,” Scholten said.
As Buttigieg’s bus tour rolled toward Dubuque on its next to last day, he held a social media Q&A using the hashtag #ButtigiegBusTour. By the time he arrived, Lucas Tully, who had been following the questioning, was waiting to hear him at a riverfront rally.
Tully, 24, who was a caucus organizer in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, declared Buttigieg his top candidate. He predicted Dubuque County was ready to revert to the Democrats in 2020.
“I see a lot less of the red MAGA hats in town that you saw after the election,” he said. “People have maybe put them in the back of their closet.”